31 December 2007

ever at my back I hear. . .

Here's a poem for the New Year, from current Poet Laureate Charles Simic. The Library of Congress site notes, with delightful academic understatement, that "Charles Simic was born in Yugoslavia on May 9, 1938. His childhood was complicated by the events of World War II." Yes, I'll just bet it was. This poem is from his collection The Book of Gods and Devils:

The Pieces of the Clock Lie Scattered

So, hurry up!
The evening's coming.
The grown-ups are on the way.
There'll be hell to pay.

You forgot about time
While you sought its secret
In the slippery wheels,
Some of which had teeth.

You meant to enthrall
The girl across the hall.
She drew so near,
Her breast brushed your ear.

She ought to have gone home,
But you kept telling her
You'll have it together again
And ticking in no time.

Instead, you're under the table
Together, searching the floor.
Your hands are trembling,
And there's a key in the door.

So here's to fresh starts and new beginnings, no matter how arbitrary or even deluded, and to making the most of your time, whatever that might be. Happy New Year to one and all.

28 December 2007

giving the people what they want (L'etat, c'est moi)

It sure was swell of the Senate to intervene so Tom Brady and I could spend this Saturday night together. (Here’s the score so far: giving the people what they want, Iraq division: 0; giving the people what they want, NFL-watching division: 1!) I thought it was my economy-based move to minimal cable (no ESPN or any of its spawn, no Fox Sports) that was going to keep me from watching the Patriots go for a perfect season, but it turns out that it’s really the NFL’s attempt to put their games on a pay network that was going to keep most of the country, not just me, from watching. More and more games are slipping off the freely available networks and onto ones you have to pay for; in a few years my fanship might be limited to scanning the sports page while waiting for the train.

Practically everyone outside of New England claims to hate the Patriots now. The first time Brady led the team to the Super Bowl, it was an underdog story of the type allegedly beloved by Americans (of course, we only love underdogs once they stop actually being underdogs and become winners): picked down low in the draft and promoted due to injury, football’s Ruby Keeler had the proverbial storybook season, and remained likeable and level-headed through it all, even to the extent of insisting that the team be introduced at the Super Bowl as a team, without stars. But then he kept on winning, and dating supermodels, and appearing in model-like magazine spreads himself, and though he kept on seeming quite likeable, level-headed, and team-oriented, being handsome, rich, young, and successful is just too much for the public to take. Throw in the supermodels and it's all over.

The storybook aspect may be why people don’t seem to realize how chancy these things are; the Giants might actually win the game. But as far as I’m concerned, the Patriots, having already won fifteen out of the sixteen regular-season games they play these days, have already outdone the fourteen-game perfect season of the fabled 1972 Dolphins, so you can stick an asterisk on that old record (the Dolphins also used more than one quarterback, and played back in the pre-parity days, which proves my point that there is always an asterisk). But I suppose I can’t really blame the people who hate the Patriots because they’re sick of hearing about them, since I want the Patriots to win because I’m sick of hearing about the 1972 Dolphins, who smugly toast each other every chance they get.

Before Senator Kerry intervened, I briefly considered going to a sports bar to watch the game, but then I’d have to watch the game, you know, in a sports bar. Surrounded by rowdy drunks. Who hate the Patriots. I don’t think I really care enough. I mean, I enjoy watching football (though let me just say: the games last too long, there are way too many commercials, the action is very start-and-stop in a maddening way, and the game and the players exude an underlying, anonymous exhaustion, which, though it makes football the metaphorical sport of choice for contemporary America, is ultimately depressing), but I’m not a facepainter, and really don’t want to be surrounded by them.

Speaking of facepainters, I recently dipped a timid toe into the turbulent waters of Opera-L. I seem to have arrived in the middle of a Netrebko firestorm, but then there always seems to be a firestorm brewing there. Many of the postings take the form of indignant and sarcastic suggestions that other people should lighten up on the indignation and sarcasm. I’m not sure how long I’ll hang on. For every interesting note there are multiple examples of the higher bitchery taking up space in my inbox, and I only want to spend so much time hitting delete. I’ve never understood arguing for the sake of arguing. If it's not a dispassionate search for truth and beauty, I just don't have the patience. At a recent Wagner society meeting one woman announced repeatedly that she was “going to start something”; she then declared that the eighteenth century – all of it – was worthless and boring, at least compared to the nineteenth. To me, if you don’t like Gluck or Mozart or whoever, that’s your loss. Why would I argue? or care? You can’t have a discussion with facepainters.

Maybe my lack of enthusiasm for sports bars (or bars in general) is behind my bafflement at San Francisco Opera’s broadcasting plans. I can understand why the Met is in movie theaters, since their broadcasts are live. But if you’re broadcasting pre-recorded performances, why arrange them so that you have the disadvantages of live theater without the compensatory thrills? I will happily sit in a theater for six hours for a live performance, but much as I love, say, Tristan, there’s no way I’m going to cram myself into a movie theater that long, especially when I’ll spend the whole time wondering why there wasn’t a DVD release I could enjoy, repeatedly, at leisure. Financially the DVD is a better consumer choice anyway (at least for me, and am I not a representative man?), even without the possibility of repeated viewings: the Onegin and Puritani that the Met released recently are going for about $30 each on Amazon. If you add up the movie ticket price (I think it's currently about $22 for the Met broadcasts) and the cost of BART tickets, you’re already near that total, and that’s without any popcorn. Here’s my suggestion for the Met and San Francisco Opera: release DVDs, both on a subscription basis and for general sale, similar to the way Ward Marston sells his records or John Eliot Gardiner his Bach cantata series. Please, don’t thank me. Not having to go to the Cineplex and listen to Tristan with someone chewing in my ear is thanks enough.

ADDENDUM on the football game: I knew it wasn't going to be a snoozefest, and that the Giants were going to play their starters, so why didn't all the TV commentators know? I wish I'd said something beforehand, but I thought it was obvious. I wouldn't exactly say I have the heart of a champion, but even I know you're not going to go into the playoffs having rolled over and given the historic crown to your rivals, especially when they started their big season by thumping you soundly in your own stadium. Sure, from a rational perspective it was a meaningless game since both teams are already in the playoffs, but if you operate rationally you probably aren't caring that much about football anyway. From a psychological perspective it was huge for the Giants as well as the Patriots, so I fully expected to see Eli Manning out there for at least the majority of the game. Sometimes it amazes me how much more I know than other people.

24 December 2007

Tyger Tyger burning bright, Won't you guide my sleigh tonight?

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but not so much at my house. Christmas ornaments, being shiny, fragile, all about aesthetics, often expensive, and essentially useless, are the kind of thing I’m simpatico with, but this year I didn’t even put the tree up, so I will not be hanging that shining star upon the highest bough any time soon. I thought the weekend after Thanksgiving was too soon, since we still had a week of November to go, and then I came down with The Head Cold That Would Not Die on top of everything else, and it seemed that my little energy and less time should be directed elsewhere, and the moment slipped by. I don’t even get a real tree, which requires coordinating efforts with someone who can drive; I just lug the box up from the basement and put the tree together. Only God can make a tree my ass. (It turns out I’m allergic to pine anyway. I once washed the kitchen floor with Pinesol and couldn’t breathe in there for a week afterwards. Who knew it actually contained pine?)

So an artificial tree is definitely the way for me to go, and artificial seems suited to the season anyway, though this summer I did discover the joy of chopping down real trees. I suddenly noticed that the industrious squirrels had planted a walnut tree by the side wall and, under cover of the lemon tree, it had gotten so tall it blocked the light from my apricot trees. I could either spend $25 on an axe now or put off dealing with it and spend hundreds of dollars later for professional tree removal. Down I went to Home Depot and got my axe, and I discovered my inner pioneer. If I didn’t love trees so much I’d be on a bare lot right now. Some of my friends had a very odd reaction to the axe. I would mention buying it as one of several things I had been up to lately, but that’s the only thing they would mention in their replies, with strangely hostile comedy. I don’t know why exactly. Either it conjured up an image of can-do masculinity not usually associated with me (and you know how people love to keep others in their niches), or they just did not like the idea of me with sharp weapons to hand.

Until three days before Christmas, when I received another from a depressed friend, I had received exactly one card, though I have to say it was from the people I’ve had the deepest, most prolonged relationship with this year – my plumbers. Santa is flying through the air, his sleigh laden with sinks, hot water heaters, and other plumbing paraphernalia – the artist was too tasteful to include a toilet, but euphemistically in its place is a line for snaking out the sewer pipes, a sight I became all too familiar with this year. My traditional Christmas wheat seeds didn’t sprout, except for one or two sickly pale sprouts, which clearly were not going to stand up to the gummy mold taking over the bowl. So there was no greenery to decorate the nativity scene, which stayed boxed anyway. Even Macy's Holiday Lane, with which I have a childish fascination, ended up disappointing me; by the time I got there ready to buy, all the Eric Cartman ornaments were gone, and so was most everything else. The mess around here is depressingly lacking in seasonal glitter.

But I have been listening to lots and lots of Christmas music, for which I have a weakness, and not just Handel or Heinrich Schutz, either. I have piles of it (though at least one pile seems to have disappeared into the general mess – that’s the sort of thing I should be working on, and that’s why I didn’t put up the tree – and it bugs me because I know L’Enfance du Christ is in that pile, and I’m on a Berlioz kick). Many of them are of the “opera singers do Christmas” variety (and who would miss out on Callas’s beloved Christmas album? Has any singer ever surpassed La Divina’s piercing rendition of Rudolph’s anguish?), though I range into other fields. I’m always on the lookout to add a few new Christmas albums each year. I saw one on Amazon that was credited to Twentieth Century Masters. I was eagerly expecting Milton Babbitt’s “I Don’t Care If You Listen to My Variations on Frosty the Snowman” or, at a minimum, Philip Glass’s Little Drummer Boy, but the CD turned out to have performances by Alvin and the Chipmunks and suchlike. I resisted the temptation. But when I finish Cairn’s Berlioz biography, my next music book will be The Rest Is Noise, and believe you me, I’ll keep my eyes peeled for an appearance by the Chipmunks.

It’s lucky for me I like Christmas music, because it’s ubiquitous – even Noah’s Bagels was playing O Tannenbaum this afternoon. Before work this morning I was walking around the Embarcadero Center, and I heard version after version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, an odd choice for a mall since it is the most deeply melancholy of all Christmas songs, even in the dance remix version they were playing. I can only assume people are so used to the song they don’t listen to the lyrics anymore, or hear the melody once they’ve recognized the song. This year of all hopeless years in America it seems desperate to dream that next year all our troubles will be far away, and we should be so lucky as to muddle through somehow. I don’t know how shoppers hearing this song don’t end up in an embryonic curl on the floor, sobbing for their desolated lives. I’m guessing that’s not what the malls have in mind.

That’s why in malltown we usually get the bright tunes, always carefully secular (that is definitely not a complaint – it seems too grossly ironic to hear about the impoverished little child in the manger while you’re stepping over the homeless slumped in the odd corners so that you can reach the sales before they all disappear – the sales, that is; the homeless aren’t going away anytime soon). The problem, at least for those who pay attention to the music, is that most of the popular secular songs were written in the 1950s, so they’re filled with that decade’s creeping paranoia and barely repressed twisted sexual politics. You’d better watch out! You’d better not cry! (We’re all happy here in the Homeland!) Guess who’s coming to town – the big man in red who believes in the redistribution of wealth! He has you under total surveillance! In case you miss the point, he’s got that big Karl Marx beard, and if you’re bad you get a lump of coal – an obvious symbol of the rise of the Industrial Revolution and the crushing of the proletariat. But that’s better than the creepy sexual innuendo, sung by a child who doesn’t quite realize what she’s seeing, in I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, an unnerving song that is just a short step away from I Saw Mommy Blowing Santa in the Parking Lot for a Hit of Meth. Then there’s Santa Baby. It turned up on a “Cool Christmas” compilation I bought a few years ago. I listened to it again recently, paying special attention to the lyrics. It appears to be about a prostitute or upper-middle-class housewife of some sort who, in exchange for a variety of luxury goods, is offering Santa anal intercourse. Ho ho ho indeed.

Then there are all the songs about snow. I find these slightly disorienting in an area where the cold end of the year means that the golden hills of summer are glazed green by winter rains. In the short December days I don’t see my house while it’s light except for the weekends, so it wasn’t until I went out to sweep up the leaves last Sunday that I realized I still had roses blooming – lo, how a rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung! Although some of the cities around here are obviously arbitrarily named (Walnut Creek: neither a walnut nor a creek!), Castro Valley, where I grew up, is in fact a valley – kind of like Florence, only without the Renaissance – that once belonged to a ranching family named Castro. And only once, for one afternoon in my childhood, was it cold enough for something like snowflakes to fall. My mother put us all in the car and drove us up to the hilly part of town where it was coldest so we could watch the flakes fall. They melted away as soon as they touched the ground, and I feel like Colonel Aureliano Buendia remembering that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

Years ago, when I heard the premiere of Harbison’s cantata for Christmas, The Flight into Egypt, he gave an interview in which he mentioned that his intention was to present the darker side of Christmas, especially in these times when the gap between rich and poor is wider than ever. He makes a good point, but I wonder if he was mostly thinking of the secular songs that have taken over, by commercial necessity. Many of the old carols reflect a subtle disjunction between what is and what should, or could, be. They are filled with questions: What child is this? Yonder peasant, who is he? Who were the first to cry Noel? Mary, did you know? And what was in those ships all three on Christmas Day in the morning? Do you hear what I hear? And who may abide the day of His coming, and who shall stand when He appeareth? They shift uneasily from place to place, imploring, commanding, seeking a different destiny: O come, O come Emmanuel; come, thou fount of every blessing; go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere; over the river and through the woods; field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star; hasten now, good folk of the village; I wonder as I wander. And they reflect the muted glories and hidden wonders in the mundane. All is calm, all is bright; how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. So many of them emphasize how tiny and helpless the small child in the manger is. I think to take in the power of that image you don’t need to be a Christian of any sort, and in fact it might even help if you have no belief that the child is God or some variant thereof, but just a new generation of the dispossessed, born to the dispossessed.

No matter how filled with materialism, or even joyous celebration, your Christmas might be, at the day’s core is always the image of the vulnerable child, in the dead of winter. That might be why Christmas music elicits tears so easily. Perhaps the longing for a lost past is too overwhelming, or the longing for a redemption that has never arrived, unless the isolated moments of stillness are all the redemption we have. I’ve pretty much checked out of Christmas this year; the machine was just too much for me, though I’m trying to go pleasantly and decently through the days. I am a poor boy too.

22 December 2007

confusion now hath made his masterpiece

Back to David Poutney’s Macbeth, and I’ll start off by saying something nice. I really liked the sickly radioactive-green slime in place of blood. It’s startling, it’s unearthly, it’s viscerally disgusting in a way that stage blood usually isn’t. (And there’s Shakespearean precedent for using the blood’s color as a metaphor: “his [Duncan’s] silver skin laced with his golden blood”.) The green is unfortunately less effective when shining on the typewriter after Banquo’s murder (see my previous entry). Green slime works as blood, but the color itself has too many positive and soothing connotations to be effective as a general symbol of death and horror.

Red was reserved for the witches. You’d think this would be effective, but it’s not. The witches in the Washington National Opera production (directed by Paolo Micciche) I saw last spring were also color-coordinated; they were all in white, and, like these red witches, some of them carried hula hoops. The white gave them an unearthly apparitional look, and they reminded me of Goya’s Caprichos. The red chorus, I’m sorry to say, kept reminding me of the ladies of the Red Hat Society, who are frightening in a very different way. I did like the one who kept turning the crank on her manual eggbeater, thereby adding an eerie touch to the orchestration, one that Verdi had sadly neglected. It reminded me of hearing Henze’s Fifth Symphony many years ago; as I was reading down the list of instruments, I came upon "bullwhip". I think it got cracking in the third movement. One witch in particular, wearing a going-to-church-extravagant red chapeau and strolling around with a red walking stick, made me think, The Red Brigade of Women present . . . Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience! You see how the mind wanders when the staging is ineffective. The sisters were indeed weird, but they were weird in the same way as the rest of the staging. It’s important that they be strange in a different way. Otherwise they seem like more of the same rather than an eruption from either another world or the subconscious.

I will mildly disagree with those who were horrified that the Opera bought this production, meaning we’re going to have to see it again. I thought the sets were OK. It’s what happens on and around them that is a mess, and that can be changed. There’s the big box with one or two glass sides that gets moved around and represents various things, from Macbeth’s castle to his isolation, and it’s set under a curved dome with a big cracked hole in it. It’s banal to put it into words – see, the natural order has been damaged! – but visually it’s quite effective, though perhaps not enough so to last for the entire opera.

Just about every scene cries out for change. Let me use the sleepwalking scene as an example. Jeremy Galyon, valiantly playing the doctor, is led in blindfolded by Elza van den Heever’s admirably committed Lady-in-Waiting. I assume the blindfold is because Lady Macbeth is sequestered and he’s not supposed to know where she is. But she’s not supposed to be that gaga. They have her already acting crazy by the banquet scene, so her attempts to force Macbeth to behave normally when he sees Banquo’s ghost no longer make any sense. The Macbeths present a façade of normal kingship that hides an increasingly sinister world of fear and surveillance, an effect that is completely lost when you turn Lady Macbeth into the madwoman in the attic. So she does her handwashing thing and the doctor takes notes. The only reason the doctor should be taking notes in this scene is so that he can be shown stopping his note-taking when he realizes what exactly is making Lady Macbeth feel so guilty. In this production, it’s probably needless to say, he writes the whole time, which makes even less sense than you might think because the Lady-in-waiting angrily snatches the paper from him when he finishes and either tears it or hides it away in her pocket (I forget which and it probably doesn't really matter). Maybe it’s meant to be a prescription, because she then produces a huge hypodermic needle, and the two of them run off stage, presumably to give Lady Macbeth the injection that causes her death. It’s hard to tell because they aren’t shown actually doing anything with the needle. But the death of Lady Macbeth is rumored to be at her own hand – again, under the façade of a normal, natural occurrence, bloodthirsty ambition causes its own destruction, a point that is lost completely if she dies through a lethal injection given by her servants.

I know lots of people found Hampson’s Macbeth riveting. I thought he initially was disengaged and not nuanced enough, which surprised me in an artist noted for his commitment and intelligence. He has a beautiful voice, and it’s one that carries especially well in the War Memorial Opera House. He has great stage presence: if he were a scholarly book, he would not only be regularly referred to as a tome, but inevitably as a magisterial tome. So I might just have heard him on an off night, possibly for both of us. At one point I thought, there’s no erotic charge between him and Lady Macbeth; you don’t get the feeling that their ambition and their guilty complicity excite them in any way. Right after that we got to see a flash of him humping her during Banquo’s murder, but that’s the sort of thing that is better conveyed in nuanced gestures during the performance rather than in an over-obvious tableau.

Georgina Lukacs as Lady Macbeth seemed like a wildly variable performer. I gather she was much better the night I heard her than in earlier performances. I sometimes wonder how much what I expect from voices has been affected by beginning to listen seriously in the early white-sound days of the first generation of HIP singers (long before they were called that). So after this performance I listened to recordings of Verrett and Rysanek in the role. Nope, it’s not me. Lukacs has a wildly undulating wobble, which she managed to control better in some of the later scenes. Just as I wish opera directors didn’t know about La Mere Coupable, knowledge of which has coarsened and distorted many a staging of Nozze di Figaro, I also wish they didn’t know about Verdi’s letter stating that Lady Macbeth needs an ugly voice. Whatever his motive in writing that, it’s clear what he meant: he wanted a striking and unusual type of character, from a singer who could give an actual performance, one that went beyond making the pretty canary-bird sounds. But too much that is inartistic is covered over by the whole “ugly voice” excuse.

Even the orchestra disappointed me. When I went to the WNO production last spring it was mainly because that happened to be what they were doing when I was in town (I was more focused on Titus at the Shakespeare Theater and on hearing Racette in Jenufa later that week), and I walked in wondering if I should have gone to the Nationals game instead. (If you’ve been to RFK Stadium, or seen the Nationals play lately, this is a pretty big indication that I was not that excited about Macbeth.) I walked out so glad that I had gone, and thinking that I had really underestimated the fascinations and effectiveness of the score. I took that to be because I hadn’t heard the piece in a while, but now I’m giving lots of credit to the magic stick of conductor Renato Palumbo. Massimo Zanetti conducted the San Francisco performance. We started off with a slack, enervated prologue, and I hoped for improvement that never came. There was no tension or forward drive, and the weird parts sounded pretty much like all the rest. Zanetti did have great conductor hair, though, a poufy backward sweep of silvery gray that bobbed up and down as his arms waved energetically about. I should point out that from my seat I normally can barely see the conductor.

So I walked out of this performance with renewed retrospective admiration for the one I heard last spring. Eventually the BART train showed up, and as usual I had to move at least once because someone was blasting her iPod at an ever-increasing volume. It amazes me when I think how much reading I used to get done on the trains, before the invasion of the inadequately silenced electronic devices. Since it was a short train, there was little choice where to go. I ended up in a seat near two spherical sisters. As teenage drunks go they were fairly innocuous, and I would salute them for not driving in that condition except I suspect it was just because they didn’t have a car. I was only about a stop and a half away from home by this time so I didn’t bother moving again (where would I go anyway on a short train?) when the younger one started vomiting, choking out apologies while splattering the window near her and the floor under her seat. “It’s OK, bitch,” her sister kept murmuring. “Bitch, it’s OK. We’ve all been there.” That might have been the truest performance I heard all night.

21 December 2007

Is this a typewriter which I see before me, its carriage return towards my hand?

I have more to say about David Pountney’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth, but I felt that the much ballyhooed typewriter, as the true star of the show, deserved its own contemplative entry. First let me point out the extremely obvious: if you stage Macbeth (either Shakespeare or Verdi) and the audience, critics, and blogosphere are all abuzz over a prop – literally the first thing I heard when the curtain fell was, “Now, what about that typewriter?”, and that may well have been cued by its prominent mention in every single review – then you have done something way wrong, and should probably head right back to the design board, or possibly just into a different profession. The very thought of a typewriter in Macbeth might lead you to expect all kinds of epater-les-bourgeoisie craziness, and generally I’m OK with wacky whatthefuckery (though I’d like to suggest that Macbeth is maybe not really the best vehicle for such a display), but in fact there’s very little of that going on – as distinct from inept or inappropriate staging, of which there is plenty – which might be why the typewriter, mysterious in its isolation, has become the defining symbol of the production.

First I really should thank San Francisco Opera for giving me this opportunity to show that I actually have some critical standards and am not prepared to drop my pants and bend over for just any modern staging. Even if I were tempted to step off my (Dada-surrealist) swan boat, armored in the avant-garde, to defend the virtue of non-traditional staging, this one would send me slinking back downstream, though perhaps not until after I gave a few swift kicks with my shiny metal armor booties. I will proudly state that the Stuttgart production of Alcina was one of my all-time favorite evenings in the theater, an opinion I appear to share with Pamela Rosenberg and no one else. I have already defended Graham Vick’s Tannhauser. But this Macbeth only deepened my appreciation for what Vick did – the appearance of the children in Tannhauser moved me, but here their use as the entire army annoyed me; I found the use of one set for Tannhauser expanded my sense of the work, and here I found it limiting.

The typewriter, a regular manual machine of a now antique sort, makes its first appearance lugged by Fleance as he follows his father Banquo, who is hanging up Wanted posters, which feature two pictures that don’t look anything like the singers playing the King’s sons. Banquo is the only one besides Macbeth and Lady Macbeth who knows what the weird sisters said. After the murder of King Duncan, he doesn’t expose Macbeth, or confront him, or conspire with him. Instead he very deliberately distances himself from Macbeth. He acts a neutral part, which is why his murder, due to Macbeth’s paranoid fear of what he might possibly say, and his bitter jealousy that the murder of King Duncan will only end up benefiting Banquo’s offspring, is a significant marker in Macbeth’s descent into tyrannical paranoia and bloodthirstiness. If Banquo isn’t neutral, Macbeth is, from the standpoint of practicality, justified in having him eliminated. Having Banquo hang up Wanted posters compromises his neutrality by making him an accessory to the cover-up, and that makes it absolutely the last thing he should be shown doing.

Not only is he actively implicating the King’s sons when he knows better, the typewriter seems to be the instrument of this implication, so you'd think Macbeth wouldn't mind. But possibly, since Fleance is carrying it, it’s meant to show that Banquo might publicize (or already has publicized) his knowledge of Macbeth’s probable guilt in the murder of King Duncan in order to benefit his son (yet if that is the case, why doesn't Banquo also mull over the same philosophical dilemma as Macbeth: if fate has decreed something will happen, does he need to do anything to make it happen?). The chorus kills Banquo; Fleance runs off, but not before setting the typewriter down front and center on the stage where a green spotlight illuminates it. Highlighting a means of spreading news might seem like an ideal occasion for the sort of camera/big video screen technology that usually appears as faithfully as fedoras in this type of staging, but instead we get the typewriter, apparently because, despite the modern/archaic look of the production, it’s actually 1949, and typewriters are how we get the news out (Hildy! It’s Walter! Stop the presses – I have breaking stuff on the big Duncan murder case!).

The typewriter appears again at the end. I have to admit I kind of lost track of when it disappeared from the stage; possibly it’s removed at the intermission. Presumably its reappearance signals that free communication has now been restored with Macbeth’s downfall, but it’s hard to tell because of the goose-stepping soldiers entering from the back of the stage. I realize that goose-stepping is a traditional military march, but to Americans it means only one thing: the Nazis are here! So I’m flummoxed by its appearance when a just order has been restored. But that might only be an example of this originally Swiss production not quite translating, sometimes literally: early on there is a banner written in German, and later there are projections of Italian words, which I assume are from the libretto. It seems odd not to translate these effects into English for an American audience, especially given the work’s inspiration in an English classic, but all things considered in this production, those are peccadilloes.

17 December 2007

the varied carols I hear

Occasionally I come across strange subcultures – not inherently strange, but previously unknown to me, and largely unacknowledged by the mainstream. Years ago I had a co-worker who gradually revealed to me her real life – the United States, it seems, is divided into a series of medieval kingdoms, each with its court and attendant social structure, and she was the devoted cook for one of the Northeast kingdoms. She spent huge amounts of time, effort, and research on her work (one of the things she used to do was examine banquet scenes from art of the period to discover how thick their pie crusts were). She candied her own ginger in traditional medieval fashion, and she used to stuff it into dragon-shaped spice cakes. She brought me some ginger once; it was very tasty.

Sometimes these subcultures go mainstream almost by accident (as when Best in Show suddenly made dog shows events that could be televised). This is obviously a desirable result for artistic subcultures, which are constantly struggling for money and attention. I’ve been to small theaters where I’ve realized I was the only one in the audience who wasn’t related to or sleeping with a cast member. It’s a shame so many smaller groups struggle in obscurity, because some of them do work that is consistently higher quality and of greater interest than a lot of what the big established institutions produce. When I lived in Boston I discovered groups like Emmanuel Music or the Cantata Singers through the Boston Globe’s extensive arts coverage; out here, I’ve become dependent on people who are involved in various groups to alert me to things worth attending, which is why I took the suggestion of The Standing Room’s multi-talented M. C- and went to the Volti Concert last November.

I dodged the crowds of drunken students and soon-to-be drunk alumni on their way to the football game and headed for St. Mark’s Episcopal on Bancroft. All those years in Berkeley and I had never been inside. The Spanish mission-style (Carmel, if you want the specific mission) exterior led me to expect more extravagant splendors inside. It’s very handsome in a stripped-down way, just not what I had expected. As usual I arrived absurdly early, despite walking around the block four or five times, so early I thought I was late – the chorus was singing when I stepped into the vestibule, and I thought I had the time wrong. It turned out to be a final rehearsal. A couple of helpful people came out; one sold me a ticket and a CD and I resumed waiting. A woman commented on how early I was – since it was around 7:20 by then, I didn’t think I was that early for an 8:00 concert, but what do I know of the ways of small choral groups? It's been quite a while since I've been exposed to that subculture. The chorus left and the church slowly filled up with choristas.

Music audiences tend to have different conglomerate personalities, even if some of the audience members are the same – the vocal crowd is different from the piano crowd, and they’re different from the string quartet crowd; the early music people rarely see a mainstream opera audience, and the valiant band of modernists is a different set altogether. But small choral groups have some of the intimacy and intensity of chamber music, and their aficionados are similar. Many of them had the sense to bring their own cushions. I’ve been to enough concerts in churches so that I should have known better than to trust to wooden pews, even in an Episcopalian church, but there I was, unpadded. Murmured conversations flew around about who was running which group now and what auditions were being held when. Some velvet-clad couples were just a turkey-leg away from full Renaissance Faire drag; I half expected them to try to sell me handmade scented candles.

The concert itself was wonderful, and I’m glad I bought a CD. Volti does lots of new music; in fact, there were four world premieres at that concert, which puts it about four world premieres ahead of the San Francisco Symphony’s entire season (it would be accurate to note that the Symphony has several North American premieres scheduled, one of which is of a new Magnus Lindberg piece, and also accurate to insist on the larger truth of the Symphony’s lack of commitment to new music). At most concerts you get used to listening in a comparative way; since you’ve heard the pieces so many times before, you can’t help but measure the performance against some ideal, recorded or imagined. With new music you’re out in deep water, and you have to listen in a different way, for different things – it’s kind of like being a novice concert-goer all over again, and that’s a useful place to be. Listening is a skill that needs to be practiced.

All of the pieces were in English except for Morten Lauridsen’s Madrigali, which was in Italian. For that number they projected the translations onto a screen, which I’m all in favor of – I have long wished recitals used these projections. In fact, they might have done it for the pieces in English as well, since choral singing is by its nature more diffuse than solo. I particularly liked Stacy Garrop’s Sonnets of Beauty and Music (part of a series of thematically grouped poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay; I would love to hear the whole series when it’s completed), but that’s not at all to dismiss the other pieces (by Howard Hersh, Richard Festinger, Wayne Peterson, and Alan Fletcher as well as Lauridsen). Many of the composers were there and spoke before their pieces, which I pretty much could have done without. One of the composers turned out to be sitting behind me, and apparently he agreed with me, but he did say to his companion that it gave people a different way into the work, so fair enough, though I find such prefaces tend to the obvious, and are mostly of a “human interest” nature, and we all know that human interest is what you give people who aren’t really interested in the art form. I think there’s too much emphasis on the creative process instead of on the created object.

I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, and contentment doesn’t really lend itself to comment, other than saying I’m looking forward to Volti’s next concerts (March 1, 2, and 3 – go to http://www.voltisf.org/ for venues, CDs, and other information). Afterwards I had the great pleasure of meeting in person both Sid of the Standing Room (and Volti’s bass section) and Lisa of Iron Tongue of Midnight. I would urge you to check them out immediately (blogroll to the right), but if you’re reading this you probably have been reading them already (with one or two possible exceptions – Hi Mom!). So before Clash of the Choirs makes choral singing the next big thing, jump into that subculture and subvert the dominant corporate world of rock/rap/pop by hearing the real live thing from singers who can actually sing. You have now been officially urged to check them out.

10 December 2007


If I lived anywhere near New York City, I know where I would be tomorrow night: in the audience for What Next? on the composer’s 99th birthday, hoping to applaud the great man himself. I’ve had kind of an Elliott Carter thing for quite some time now, which has pretty much just taken the form of buying any recordings I could find or, on occasions that are much too rare, hearing his music live. It’s very possible that I started listening to him because I heard he was “difficult”, which I took as a challenge, and “intellectual”, which I took as something I would like. I find his music passionate and gorgeous, and it’s given me a lot of pleasure over the years. And I can only feel deep gratitude and admiration for an artist who soldiers on in relative obscurity, growing, developing, working, in pursuit of the elusive and irreplaceable ideal. A few years ago the Pacifica Quartet played all of his string quartets in one evening, and it was one of my all-time favorite concerts. I just sat there in the dark, hearing only my own breathing and the unbelievably beautiful music pouring out of just four instruments. For this relief, much thanks.

09 December 2007

he kneels before thy wounded shade

Love is always disappointing, isn’t it?

Have I mentioned how very much I love The Rake’s Progress?

Maybe I was expecting too much from San Francisco Opera’s new production, given the promise of a new staging from Robert Lepage, with an interesting-sounding switch from the usual Hogarthian London to a semi-contemporary, semi-1950s (excuse me, midcentury) setting in the Texas oil fields and Hollywood, and with an exceptional cast that included William Burden as Tom, Laura Aiken as Anne, James Morris as Nick Shadow, and Denyce Graves as Baba the Turk. And it did affect my evening though not my view of the performance that the man behind me was virtuosic in his rudeness: talking, stamping his feet (yes, Denyce Graves looks good in a swimsuit), clicking and dropping his water (though I swear I smelled liquor a couple of times) bottle, coughing, rustling and rattling, and finally rising to a pasticcio Rossinian crescendo in the second half by adding the loud smacking of his chewing gum, a noise that to me is worse than the proverbial fingernails on a blackboard. By the time I realized how bad the one-man band was going to be I was trapped. And I was getting a weird, hostile vibe from this guy that made me think it would do no good to turn around and tell him to shut up. But as a connoisseur of irritation, I can tell the difference between a wonderful evening spoiled by one element and an evening where all the elements are not quite going right. It’s like the time I finally went to Florence: I would have preferred it if it hadn’t rained most of the time, or if the sun had been out for more than (no exaggeration) one or two hours in the entire nine days (though in those occasional hours I realized for the first time that brown can be a deeply romantic color – perhaps that’s why Alice B. Toklas said it was her favorite?), but still I loved being there, room with a view and all.

Lepage’s production is very clever; in fact, it’s probably too clever, filled with distracting stunts at just the wrong time. Sometimes people will point out to me, in case I hadn’t noticed, that I approach opera from a theatrical point of view (which always reminds me of my paternal grandmother pointing out to my cousin that she never had anything bad to say about anybody; for years and years my cousin, a genuinely lovely and loving person, mistook this for a compliment). Yes, I do approach it that way, mostly because it is theater, theater of a very basic sort. But Lepage should have remembered the advice of that experienced director, Hamlet, to avoid actions which will “set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered.” The most egregious example is during Anne’s big scene (“No word from Tom”). The moon is above, Anne is standing near the front of the stage, and the Trulove home is a full-size miniature placed far back on the stage Kabuki-style, so that you get a remarkable sense of perspective and, with fairly simple means, a stunning stage picture. That’s fine. But all the windows in the house are lit, and in them, moving from room to room – and this is truly an ingenious effect, and I have no idea how they did it except through some sort of unbelievably complicated projection – you see the tiny black shadow figure of Father Trulove moving from room to room, presumably in search of his daughter. I’d say this is Anne’s key scene, and generally important to the drama, but while she is singing the very Shakespearean sentiment that if love be love it will not alter, the audience (including me, and I know better) is distractedly thinking, “Wow! How are they doing that? Look, the little figure is moving! Awesome!” When it stops at the door and calls out (in the offstage voice of Kevin Langan), “Anne! Anne!” about half the audience just lost it and started applauding the effect, drowning out the key lines in which Anne decides she will leave her father and search for the faithless Tom.

Some of the effects are perfectly done: I loved Nick Shadow emerging, dark and oily, from underneath the derrick that was pumping away in the first scene, in a suggestive image of the role oil and oil money play in our world. And when Mother Goose (the reliable Catherine Cook) claims her elder right in Tom, they sink into the huge mattress so that the sheets gradually cover them and they disappear under the stage, swallowed by the bed. But more often you get things like the movie-star trailer slowly inflating behind Tom, so that the audience is applauding a big balloon instead of William Burden. Or you get the trailer flying up into the wings, revealing a very Douglas Sirk-looking back projection, with Anne in front driving a sporty red car to find Tom, a long scarf trailing behind her (so long it had to be moved by wires; in fact it was, as the man behind me pointed out three times in quick succession, one long-ass scarf). The car and the scarf and the whole attitude seemed much more suited to glamorous Baba than to a country girl like Anne, but there were a number of odd lapses like that.

For example, there’s the strangely sloppy staging of Baba’s reappearance, after Tom has silenced her ranting not by covering her but by shoving her into their pool (it’s Hollywood, of course they have a pool). So during the auction scene, as the crowd mills around the pool bidding on various objects hoisted up from the depths, up comes a seemingly dead Baba the Turk in a bathing suit. Yet no one reacts to what is very obviously the body of a drowned woman – and not just any drowned woman, but a celebrity known to them all – and in fact, the auctioneer (the lively Steven Cole) entices them by speculating on what the mysterious object might be. Dude – it’s Baba the Turk. She’s right there in front of you! Within the context of the opera it is believable and witty that she would pick up mid-note as soon as she is unveiled, but here there seems no reason why she suddenly revives. At least they managed to keep her beard attached during this scene; during her big unveiling, she seemed to have barely a few wisps on her chin, and I thought my eyes were going, but I guess what went was the beard.

(By the way, it seems really obvious to me from the way the music builds, and from the careful omission before she appears of any phrases dealing with unfortunate facial hair, that we’re not supposed to know quite what the marvelous deal is with Baba the Turk until that big unveiling. Yes, Shadow shows Tom a broadsheet from St Giles’s fair, but that doesn’t mean the audience gets to see it too. It should be quite a striking and funny coup de theatre when she unveils, yet every production I’ve seen makes sure we know in advance that she’s a bearded lady. A lot of opera productions make the mistake of just assuming that everyone already knows the story anyway, so they don’t have to tell it thoughtfully or keep its surprises until their appropriate time. And thus repetition palls him, indeed.)

As for the general concept of the show, this is not the first production I’ve seen that takes the action out of some version of eighteenth-century England. Back in the late 1980s (possibly early 1990s) I saw a brilliant production at MIT of all places that set it in Reagan’s America, with Wall Street as the stand-in for the false pleasures of London. (It’s funny to think that would be an historical staging now, but it was contemporary at the time.) The overlay between success on Reagan’s Wall Street and in eighteenth-century-style London is actually pretty exact. In this oil field/Hollywood version there are just a lot more nagging discrepancies. For one thing, Father Trulove is meant to be a steady and substantial man of modest prosperity; making him a Texas oilman immediately makes him both far wealthier and far more of a risk-taker than he should be to function as a contrast to Tom – in fact, it changes him into a successful version of Tom instead of a contrast to him. As for the Hollywood angle, sure, it’s fine if hackneyed, and the whole “false culture of Hollywood” thing seems a little cheap to me, both too obvious and not quite true enough. (The same thing with the television that also shows up in the second half: television is just a means of distribution, like a printing press. I don’t find anything inherently insidious in television.) But the thing about our celebrity culture is that it’s all-pervasive (I can’t even pick up e-mail without passing through headlines about the uninteresting antics of various drunken starlets) in a way that doesn’t really correspond to what happens to Tom in the more insular world of London. So presenting Tom as a celebrity in our current style makes it a little difficult to believe that Anne would have no idea where Tom was or that he was about to marry a circus performer (and the daughter of a Texas oil man is not exactly going to be an unsophisticated country lass, unused to high society).

Here’s another odd bit of staging: every copy of the libretto I have (three or four of the recordings I have come with the text) says that after Father Trulove rebukes Tom in the first scene (“So he be honest, she may take a poor husband if she choose, but I am resolved she shall never marry a lazy one”) he exits into the house and then Tom says “The old fool!” Yet this production (and also the Merola production of a few years ago) has Tom speak the line while Trulove is still on stage; Trulove then hesitates and goes into the house. Trulove is kind, but also dignified, and it seems out of character for him (especially when you’re looking at him as a wealthy Texas oil man) to put up with such a direct insult without any rebuke (though of course he has to, since Auden, Kallman, and Stravinsky didn’t provide one). Tom may be weak-willed, but also good-hearted, and it seems out of character for him (in both aspects) to insult Anne’s father in such a blatant way within his hearing. I sound like the opera audiences I make fun of, but let’s pay attention to character and the libretto, shall we?

As for the singers, I’ve heard memorable performances in the past from all of the leads, and on paper I thought this production had the strongest cast this season, with the possible exception of the upcoming Ariodante. My major complaint about the conducting of Runnicles is that I feel he has a tendency to cover the singers, and I thought a lot of that was going on that night. The men came off better. Burden is sympathetic, thoughtful, and expressive as Tom. Morris has the right slightly overpowering and menacing quality as Shadow (and it adds an extra frisson to hear a famous Wotan singing that “he alone is free / Who chooses what to will, and wills / his choice as destiny”). Laura Aiken, so celestially memorable as the Angel in St Francois that I’ve loved her ever since, was a beautiful Anne but perhaps a bit underpowered. Graves has plenty of Baba’s glam theatricality and grandeur, but I thought she missed some of her heart. Baba is really the only character who changes through the action – Anne’s role of course is to be steadfast; Tom’s circumstances change, but his personality doesn’t; and the Devil (or the spirit of eternal negation, to emphasize the Faustian) stays in his element the whole time (though I once sat next to a man who didn’t realize until two and a half acts had passed that “Nick Shadow” was a devil). So it’s a shame to shortchange Baba’s wise and kind advice to Anne.

I went in wanting to love it. I was disappointed. That’s why they play the games, I guess.

01 December 2007


To all those people coming here looking for the translation of the Baudelaire line I used as an entry title, here is the translation of “Hypocrite lecteur, - mon semblable, - mon frère!”:

Hypocritical reader – my likeness/my double – my brother!

It’s the last line of Au Lecteur (To the Reader), the introductory poem to Les Fleur du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). You can go finish that paper now – it’s due tomorrow morning, isn’t it? And here I thought knowledge of Baudelaire was taken in at the breast with mother’s absinthe.

To the person from Pittsburgh who keeps coming here searching for pierogie lights: Gift shop, the Andy Warhol Museum. Enjoy!

To all the narwhal folk (or to the one person with a really oddball obsession): Sorry your trip here has been futile, but check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narwhal, though I fear even that won’t help those who searched for “origami narwhal” and “narwhal drinking game” (if you find out what that is, by the way, I'm curious to hear). And it definitely won’t be a help to the person searching for “narwhal porn.” In fact, unless this is a desperate move on the part of an otherwise scientifically respectable narwhal breeding program, I’m thinking there’s pretty much no one who can help someone searching for narwhal porn. I mean, you know . . . um . . . ouch? (And to Ms S of DC: you realize this is all your fault, right?)

The search that really fascinated me recently, from I think Columbia Medical Center in New York, was “Barry Zito Nathan Gunn” – no other terms, even the inevitable but tasteful “shirtless” or the engagingly candid “naked pics”. It turns out I’m apparently the only inhabitant of the entire webosphere that has written about both of them. Does someone else just share my combo pack favorite current baseball player and favorite baritone? See, no matter how obscure the niche, there’s someone else out there looking for it. So maybe narwhal porn guy should take heart and voyage on, the Captain Ahab of man/tusked sea mammal relations.

26 November 2007

the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised

I was able to go to at least one San Francisco Symphony concert this fall (big wave of my opera-singer hair to SY, who gave me a ticket); I heard Louis Lortie play Liszt’s Totentanz and Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, followed after the break by Alexander Nevsky with Nancy Maultsby as soloist. I was sitting close, as is my wont, so the Steinway sounded a bit harsh, but on the whole I enjoyed the whole thing immensely. I’ve always found the Choral Fantasy very appealing. I once went into a CD store to buy a copy and astonished the clerk by having heard of it. I guess she considered it the ultimate in undiscovered Beethoven. I had heard it live with Peter Serkin and the Boston Symphony, and don’t think I didn’t drop those names on her foot. The Prokofiev made me realize that I’m more used to the soundtrack than the cantata; it veered off at the end from the path I was expecting. It has its weird witty little twists, but it’s great battle music, inspiring yet mournful. I was watching the Director’s Cut of Troy a few weeks ago and I noticed James Horner plundered it pretty freely for the soundtrack.

The playbill had a long article about “guilty pleasures” in music, which I skipped, since there are more than enough sources of guilt in my life without including music among them. For some people some indulgences, usually involving food or sex, have their oh-so-naughty air as the source of pleasure. It seems odd to restrict music in such a way that rousing glittery fortes, even those of such great artists as Liszt, Beethoven, and Prokofiev, are seen as shameful. There’s something deeply thrilling about the immense but organized noise that a symphony orchestra can make, and one of the many reasons for hating artificially amplified music is that we’ve lost the awesome sense of physical excitement that a full-blown orchestra can achieve, so that nowadays it’s not uncommon for people to think that “classical music is calming”. Beethoven, Liszt, and Prokofiev – calm or calming! I like Schoenberg string quartets as much as the next guy – actually, it’s almost certain that I like them a whole lot more than the next guy, depending of course on who the next guy is – but there’s no shame in ripping open the sky. I think of the contemporaries of Berlioz and Wagner complaining about the horrendous ear-splitting cacophony they felt those composers inflicted on the world, and I laughingly wonder what those critics would make of the screeching cars that drive by blasting monotonous thumping so loudly that windows rattle up and down the block.

I was familiar with the music and I could have sworn I was familiar with the musicians, but as soon as Kurt Masur walked out to conduct I realized I had never seen him live before. Unlike most conductors, he’s much taller than I thought he would be. If you’ve never seen a man in his 80s conducting a rousing, vigorous performance of The Dance of Death, then let me tell you it is a beautiful, beautiful sight.

25 November 2007

Dich, teure Halle, gruss ich wieder!

One little-noted hazard of the alleged graying of the concert-going population is that you’re much more likely to be killed crossing the street before and especially after concerts, when all the cranky old people with night-blindness are running red lights to get home in time for that night’s Matlock re-run. That’s the sort of thing that put me in a foul mood both before and after the recent Magic Flute (and let me admit I’m also not as spry as I used to be). The opera itself was like a sweet oasis, something to look back on with pleasure as I resumed trekking through the dry wastes. I used to have this experience when I started going to San Francisco Opera: I would walk up Market Street, and always just as the sordid filth and craziness was making me feel like Travis Bickle the Opera House would appear.

I had seen this Gerald Scarfe production a few years back in DC at the National Opera. It holds up very well. It's colorful and fantastical without being too cartoony, and it strikes a good balance between beauty and whimsy. To me this production avoided the whole awkward Monostatos the evil dark-skinned would-be rapist thing quite neatly by making him a frog-like bright green, but check out Campbell Vertesi’s write-up for a very different reaction. The conglomerate creatures drawn forth when Tamino first plays his flute justifiably bring down the house (the biggest hit always seems to be the little alligator-headed penguin in his Converse Hightops), but I did talk to someone who really objected to this scene because it distracts from what Tamino is singing. I see his point, but I still find it within the acceptable range of theatrical effects. To run down the list, I thought Erika Miklosa as the Queen of the Night was a little underpowered in her first aria, though that might just have been a side effect of being suspended mid-air while singing it, since she blazed through her Act 2 aria. Georg Zeppenfeld as Sarastro was basically fine but seemed a bit lightweight to me, which is too bad for me since his Act 2 aria about vengeance being forbidden within these hallowed halls is one of my favorite moments in the opera. Piotr Beczala and Dina Kuznetsova were the appealing and lyrical Tamino and Pamina; I particularly liked her plangent pianissimos. Often there’s a point when Papageno starts to get on my nerves, the way someone who is ostentatiously a regular guy would, but Christopher Maltman kept the character funny and charming. But I did miss the hilarious little moment from the DC production when Papageno (Rod Gilfry) slicked back his head-feathers upon meeting Papagena out of her old-lady disguise.

I’ve always thought that the Magic Flute would be a good introductory opera, since it contains just about every type of operatic situation or mood, and is furthermore a work on the highest level; you’re not talking down to someone, no matter what his or her age or interest, by leading him or her Flute-ward. Apparently I’m not the only one who has noticed this, since there seems to be a push among opera houses to turn the Magic Flute into the sort of family-friendly cash cow that ballet companies have in the Nutcracker. My godson told me that radio ads were marketing it to video gamers as a fantasy quest. I said, Sure, but did they also tell you it’s in German and lasts over three hours? And that the hero enters being chased by a big snake and immediately faints, and has to be rescued by three women who then sing about how pretty he is, and that it’s actually his goofy sidekick who saves the girl, and later his vow of silence keeps him from saving his girl from despair? Not quite the manly avatar most gamers go for, but I was reminded of how deeply weird the Magic Flute really is. The amazing thing is, you accept all of this while you’re watching it, and the even more amazing thing is that the whole mishmash forms a coherent work, thanks no doubt to Mozart’s gorgeous music, which illuminates low farce and high tragedy with an identical radiance that becomes wisdom.

I don’t think that most opera plots are ridiculous or incoherent, despite their reputation, but the Magic Flute does take a lot of puzzling out, or, if you prefer, has the deep dreamlike logic of a fairy tale. Why do the Three Ladies give good advice and help at one point and then try to obstruct Tamino and Papageno at another? The Queen of the Night is evil yet a loving mother – or does she just want Pamina to steal back the disc of the sun for her? What’s the deal with the disc anyway? It seems even less effective than Alberich’s ring. Why is Monostatos hanging around in the enlightened court of Sarastro, or being allowed to hang out there? And shouldn’t that enlightened ruler have more effective punishments than beating the soles of the feet? I don’t think Masonic symbolism is really that important to understanding the Magic Flute, and it’s probably best for us not to pursue too far its division between enlightened/male/white and destructive/female/dark energies. The Magic Flute’s very contradictions and confusions are what provide the audience with the most realistic picture of what it’s like to puzzle one’s way through the moral confusions of the world.

15 November 2007

It's because I said "chthonic", isn't it?

So there's a site that will tell you the reading level of your blog (a brimming hornful of mead to Sieglinde for providing the link), and it looks as if traipsing through The Reverberate Hills means that you're reading at a Genius level, but we knew that all along, didn't we? That must explain why even the porn monkeys who stumble in here, and no doubt immediately exit in bewildered terror, are searching for fancy stuff like "dance of the seven veils porn" (take a bow, resident of Ljubljana, Slovenia!). I take no credit. I'm just sitting here doing what comes naturally, warbling my native woodnotes wild. It's my readers who deserve all the glory; obviously their astonishing physical beauty is not just a reflection of inner moral perfection, but also of superior yet modestly hidden intellect. Look, if I were that smart myself I'd have figured out how to do that link thing in the text. I did it once but haven't had any luck since then. I suppose this means I'll have to read some instructions. Damn! I hate that! In the meantime, I'll just spell out the reading level site: http://www.criticsrant.com/bb/reading_level.aspx

It's a bare-bones site; there are no witty summaries or snarky analysis. I suspect it's just a version of the readability levels we used to apply to school texts long ago and far away when I was sort of involved in that, and which were frequently pointed to by those who knew they existed as one of the causes of the endumbening of American discourse. This sounds urban legendish, but I was told that the lists had not been changed since their invention in the 1940s and so words like "astronaut" were considered obscure and collegial. And don't even think about slipping a subordinate clause in there, mister. So perhaps "Genius" level these days just means that in the late nineteenth century they'd have let you have a crack at the McGuffey Readers, once the wheat harvest was all safely stowed, of course, and the cows all milked and fed.

10 November 2007

we now return to our regularly scheduled programming

All those people coming here after Lisa kindly linked to me in her Iron Tongue of Midnight write-up of the wonderful Volti concert (which I’ll get to in a few entries – I’m a bit backed up, once again), and all they’ve gotten for days and days is the same entry, which is me waxing philosophical in my jockstrap. Usually I’m a little more on the arty side, so I hope no one was scared off. (Of course, any baseball fans who stumbled here unawares, eager for any scrap of Red Sox musing, may be scared off by the arty side.) But I generally try to leave a day or two between postings anyway in order to give adequate reading time, since, as several kind friends have thoughtfully pointed out, in case I had overlooked it, my entries tend to be long. There are just as many notes as necessary, your majesties. And I’ve been dealing with old bills drifting in piles like autumn leaves, and I’ve also had those to sweep up non-metaphorically, and a new job, and major plumbing problems and minor surgery (maybe I should make it clear those were two separate situations, only one of which involved my body), so things have been in a bit of disarray – but that implies that sometimes they aren’t. Several years ago some friends of mine were coming to my house; Arby had seen it before, but his wife had not, so I started to apologize for the mess and the teetering random piles of stuff, which were due to my painting the living room, when she interrupted me to say, “Patrick – it’s OK. I’ve made that same excuse myself.” The mess really was mostly due to the room painting (honest!), but she was pointing out a larger truth. Who can keep up, or halt the entropic slide?

And what we see is only the tip of the iceberg (which is why I so often feel as if I’m traveling steerage on the Titanic). For instance, take last Wednesday. I was down by the piers, looking for a nice outdoor spot in which to eat my ham-and-cheese turnover from Acme Breads, just purchased in the Ferry Building. It’s actually quite difficult finding a nice spot to eat outdoors, which is why I usually hate it and do anything to avoid it; just as you find an empty and clean bench overlooking the laughing strand, and the playful zephyrs waft through the rustling palms carrying the gentle quarking of the gliding gulls, some pig comes stinking up the entire pier with a cigarette or a loud radio, and who can eat then? Possibly you know the hell of overly refined sensibilities. Anyway, I had found a suitable spot, and a gull came very close to me hoping for leftovers (I guess once baseball season ends, and with it the concrete smorgasbord at Major Phone Company Park, the gulls resort to working the waterfront). I was trying to remember if it was gulls or pigeons that were rats with wings, when I noticed gunky black stuff, like an oily residue, spotting the bird’s yellow legs. The residue looked oily because it was oil. There had been a huge spill in the Bay that day, which I read about in the local paper only on Friday, and I had a one-gull experience of it. I felt like Fabrizio in the Charterhouse of Parma wondering if he had experienced the battle of Waterloo or not. If I’d known the gull was a survivor I would have shared my lunch.

I’m not yet at the “I’m comfortable reading blogs here” stage at work, and I wish my desk were configured so that I could see people approaching me, to facilitate quick screen switches, but just in case I’ve added a few more of my frequently read sites to the blogroll so I can reach them conveniently. It was actually modesty that kept me from adding more sites earlier; all these people seemed to know and link to each other, and it seemed like blogosphere social climbing to add them to my modest little roll, as if I had plopped down my lunch tray at the table with the popular kids and then watched my oily string beans and flabby tater tots congeal under that mistaken move. Then I realized that only linking to people who had linked to me first was like standing in the ballroom refusing to dance unless someone asked me first. (Please, draw no conclusions about my high school social life from these hypothetical examples – I was far too pathologically timid even to think of approaching the popular kids, and I think I was too far out of the loop to know who they were anyway.) So I’m adding away, on the assumption that there’s no reasonable cause for offense. What can I say? I’m a stranger here myself.

30 October 2007

and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring

So are my Red Sox the new Yanks? Uh, no, not quite, as any Yankee fan will eagerly tell you. Two World Series wins after an eighty-six year drought is not quite the same thing as decade after decade of dominance (so I can still root for the Red Sox without feeling that it's like rooting for Bank of America, which is what rooting for the Yanks is like). But you become what you battle, and it's been quite some time since a Red Sox fan could without hypocrisy accuse the Yanks of "buying their titles", which I guess means paying high wages to the players, or think of themselves as scrappy underdogs. I've been at A's games where Red Sox Nation was so omnipresent and so vocal that the A's players, who really are scrappy underdogs and whose payroll is fairly small, must have felt they were playing in Fenway. (Unfortunately I won't have too many more opportunities to go to A's games since their current owner, who in an astonishing coincidence is also a real-estate developer, is planning on dumping them in Fremont, and not near the BART station either.)

It’s not the Yank's record of success that really irks the non-Yankees fan, I think; it’s an assumption so deep-rooted that I’m not sure it even counts as arrogance that while it’s fun for the rest of the country to play let’s pretend, anything that really matters happens with, to, for, or by the Yanks. I was pondering this during the last innings of Game 4 the other night, when it looked as if the Rockies would pull it out and at least prevent a sweep – and that was the moment A-Rod chose, with a total and typical lack of class, to announce that he was exercising his free-agent clause and would be leaving the Yankees. The Fox announcers – and of course, this figures because everyone on Fox who isn’t animated, yellow, and four-fingered is a total suck-up to power, preferably reactionary power – were panting with excitement and spent the next suspenseful inning or two wondering if the firing of Joe Torre was involved and where A-Rod would go and gee, maybe he’ll end up at the Bosox replacing their current third baseman (that would be Mike Lowell, who would be named World Series MVP at the end of the game) and wouldn’t that really stick it to the Yankees? Apparently this announcement was too big to wait a day or two until others had a chance to celebrate in the limelight. But then that self-involvement is usually seen as a general New York attitude, not limited to their American League team. Personally, I love New York, and wish I could spend more time there, but I decided long ago that I didn’t want to spend that much energy on sheer survival and that given my tendency to overspend culturally I would shortly be ruined as surely as a rich man in Balzac who has found an enticing new actress.

I don’t even think the Patriots are the new Yankees, an opinion I hear fairly often, since people tend to have incredibly short memories. When I lived in Boston the Patriots were widely considered a bad joke, and football fans looked to Doug Flutie and Boston College instead. After reading about the Red Sox news in the Globe, you might turn to the little football updates to see which player had been arrested the night before for carrying concealed weapons, probably on the way to visit an ex-girlfriend who had accused him of beating her up. Around the time I moved out of town, Bledsoe came in and things started looking up for the Patriots. I always thought Bledsoe was a class act, particularly in the way he handled his injury and the ascension of Tom Brady. But given the nature of football, any team is always one injury away from years of disaster.

But I have to wonder what all of this celebrating is doing to New England’s image of itself (the reality is no doubt unchanged). I always thought the whole Puritan influence thing was vastly over-rated. Yes, they have rough winters and they used to hang witches, but soon we’ll all have terrible winters thanks to global climate change and the witches are now quite the revenue stream for Salem. The remaining blue laws were repealed shortly after I moved to Boston, though it was startling the first time I went downtown on a Sunday and found the place deserted. But any actual serious Puritan influence was long ago and is completely dissipated by now. New England just isn’t that isolated.

While New England grapples with the haunting specter of athletic success (which can breed its own terrors – just look at the bitter back-biting and rumor-mongering that surround the Yankees or the 49ers when they don’t win it all), or at least tries to recover from sleep deprivation caused by game after game that ended after midnight, I’d like to take a moment to – well, a Yankees fan would say whine, but let me call it a chance to reflect on what has changed. After 2004, a Yankees fan I know said to me, “You know, your team is now basically the Minnesota Twins.” I had to laugh – a good team that wins every once in a while definitely lacks the romance of the team that keeps coming close only to have the champagne snatched cruelly away at the last minute. I’m enough of an old-school Sox fan to have watched the last game against Cleveland in the ALCS and to have thought, Bottom of the 8th, 11 to 2 Boston – they could still blow it. But of course they didn’t, and every time they don’t, that attitude becomes a little more of an affectation. It’s a shame, in a way. There should be a place in American life to acknowledge that life is difficult, that bad things happen to good people, and that sometimes things just don’t fall your way. There have been points in my life when I’ve thought, I’m single, I have no children, I have no driver’s license, I don’t even have an apartment in my name – basically, in the eyes of the world, I don’t exist. A few years after the big loss in ’86 made me a Sox fan, I started reading articles in the Globe about how Bostonians were coping with the latest economic downturn, ways that mostly involved taking only one vacation to Bermuda that winter, or getting spa treatments less often. Load up the Pellegrino water, Tom Joad, we’re moving out to Californee. Clearly to the eyes of these writers I and my ilk had become invisible, and I wasn’t nearly as badly off as the ragged, deranged, and suffering beggars who were becoming a frequent sight in any urban area at that time, thanks in large part to various government policies, and who could at least demand attention by standing on the sidewalk screaming. It’s easier to support destructive policies if you pretend the victims don’t exist or are undoubtedly to blame for their fate in some way.

Lots of fans in both Boston and Denver were holding up signs saying that They Believed, as if that’s enough. Belief can do a lot of things, but scoring runs for your team isn’t one of them, and giving you complete control over your fate is another. If you win, it tends to be the nature of reality that someone else loses. I was happy the Red Sox won this year, of course, and I’ll be going on-line to get the requisite T-shirts and caps (all the old-school teams can count on the merchandising to help them compete with the Yank’s payroll), but to be honest this is a bit less exciting for me than ’04, and though it’s ridiculous to talk about the tragic sense in relation to any sport – Manny was right, it wouldn’t have been the end of the world if they’d lost – it’s a shame for American society to lose any glimpse, however romanticized, of how hard and painful life can be.

28 October 2007


Sometimes more really is less. I had been eagerly anticipating the Bunraku Puppet Theatre of Japan’s visit to Berkeley. They rarely travel, I love puppets (well, not so much the human kind), and one of my all-time favorite movies (Masahiro Shinoda’s Double Suicide, if you want to fire up the Netflix queue) is based on a Bunraku classic. So, about ten minutes after the inevitable 8:00 p.m. start time that Saturday, we get a beautiful excerpted scene from Oshichi’s Burning Love – The Fire Watchtower. The set fills the stage. The puppets are quite large, maybe two-thirds life-size. I don’t know how they look from the back of that large hall, but I prefer to sit close anyway and even just a few rows away the illusion is amazing. Within this ten-minute scene you forget that there are three puppeteers (two of them hooded and dressed in black, but the main manipulator bare-headed and buskined) working on each doll. The eyelids move, the fingers move, there are slapping sounds to convey their walks. So far, so great. And then, after that brief scene, we were given An Introduction to Bunraku, in which the narrator, and then the musician, and then the puppeteer came out one by one and with the translator’s help spent a solid hour illuminating the obvious by pointing out that they use different voices/tunes for different characters, or that different strings control the different features of the face and so forth, along with some background information which was also in the program and could be read in less than ten minutes.

Does Bunraku really need an introduction? It’s pretty clear how it works, and the theatrical conventions are not so utterly bizarre that they need a condescending hour-long explication. A friend of mine once told me about an inadequately prepared junior-high class trip to the ballet; after about ten minutes his classmate leaned over and whispered, “Duuuude! Why aren’t they talking?” So maybe, under some circumstances, such as a presentation at a grammar school, the Introduction might have been necessary. I don’t think those circumstances include a presentation at a major university on the west (Asia-facing) coast. For one thing, it was clear from the sympathetic chuckles before the translator helped out the rest of us that about half the audience understood Japanese (and as the chuckles indicate, the jocular tone was totally unsuited to the essentially tragic mood of Bunraku, which seems to be the way these talks always work out). There had been a public symposium a few days before, which unfortunately I missed, and then a talk before the show. Isn’t that enough? Does the magician keep stopping his act to explain that he actually pulled the rabbit from a hidden compartment in his hat, or that he was distracting you with one hand while extracting eggs with another? There’s a lot to be said for the willing suspension of disbelief, and for not needing every last detail explained to you, and for strangeness as a desirable aesthetic quality.

Then we had the intermission, of course, and though after that we finally had an actual play, deft and dazzling (Miracle at the Tsubosaka Kannon Temple – Sawaichi’s House and the Mountain), its lyrical beauties came a little late for me. It’s a bad sign when I’m checking the running times and when even my heedless self starts thinking about how much the ticket cost. These were not cheap tickets, and frankly I felt a bit annoyed and ripped off – I was in that theater for two hours and forty minutes, and only one hour and ten minutes of that involved an actual performance. I would have been less annoyed if they’d just performed the puppet works – you know, the thing I paid to see – and cut the evening short. That was something to mull over during the interminable wait for the noisy, dirty, short BART train, and then again as the bus pulled away just as I ran up the sidewalk, giving me at least twenty-five more minutes of mulling time in the drizzly cold.

What a contrast back at Berkeley several nights later when I heard Hilary Hahn (ably accompanied on all but the Ysaye Sonata No. 5 by Valentina Lisitsa on piano). She has very long, elegant, and obviously very strong fingers, and I enjoyed watching them turn printed scores into gorgeous sounds. The first half was Franck, Mozart, and Ysaye, which I thought might be too much sweetness, but Hahn and Lisitsa found various shades of lyricism from seraphic to fizzy that kept the beauty from cloying. After the Franck the performers left the stage. A stagehand entered from the left and closed the lid of the grand piano. A moment later a different stagehand entered from the right, shaking his head and muttering, and raised the lid of the grand piano back up; hilarity ensued. I have to give lots of credit to performers who can come out and dedicate themselves to producing such wonderful music when a lot of the audience is clearly almost as entertained by a stagehand’s mistake. After the intermission Hahn put on her glasses and put up the music stand for Ives’s Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano, which was a gentler side of Ives but still possibly my favorite piece of the evening. Then they finished with the Brahms Sonata No. 2. The women returned amid applause to give us an encore – “a break from half-hours of lyricism” as Hahn charmingly noted; they played the tangy march from the Love for Three Oranges. This concert also lasted about two hours and forty minutes, but the two young women performed with tireless beauty for all but about half an hour of that time, and then stayed later to sign programs and CDs in the lobby. I decided not to stay, since I got my signed CDs last time I heard her, but I assume she was as personable and gracious this time as she was then. That’s a generous performer, dedicated to her public, and I can't wait to buy her forthcoming recording of the Schoenberg and Sibelius violin concertos. Sometimes more really is more.

22 October 2007

grave the vision Venus sends

I think we can safely call Graham Vick’s production of Tannhauser controversial, which might be the only safe thing about it. Actually, I think Tannhauser itself is sort of a hard sell these days; when it’s new any piece's strangeness works against it, and then it becomes overfamiliar and taken for granted, and it’s difficult to find the moment of perfect balance, especially when cultural conditions have changed as much as they have between nineteenth century Germany and twenty-first century America. For one thing, if we don’t actually live in Venusberg, we’d like to, or we assume that we should; I’ve had to explain to people why the Wartburg court might look askance at the realm of unbridled sensuality (think of it as the end of Death in Venice, when the Dionysiac leads to dissolution, ghastly comedy, and death). People who eagerly hang categorical labels on themselves as well as others, or the many journalists who blithely declare that “the boundaries between workplace and private life are dissolving” as if that’s a good thing, are not in the cultural frame of mind to understand the tormented divisions of Wagner’s creation. Tannhauser is a man in constant confrontation with the agonizing limitations of life: if you’re in one place doing one thing, you can’t also be anyplace else doing anything else; you thereby, every moment, cut yourself off from thousands of life’s possibilities, and the further you go the less able you are to encompass all of life.

I’m going to mention some of the things that went wrong with the production, but most of them are fairly minor, and to me Vick’s production was an honest and intriguing approach. It’s also an example of what I think of as the staging gap between opera and other forms of theater: the single set, with its seraphic corbels and large symbolically used windows above a dirt floor, and its tree and big harp stuck in the middle of the stage, and its consistent use of the ancient elements (earth, air, fire, and water), wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows at all in a production of King Lear, or even of The Way of the World. I’ve read and heard from people who hated this production, and I respect that. I don’t see any need for an avant-garde pissing contest with anyone (even the need to be avant-garde can be a trap). If you don’t have an initial connection with this type of production, then you just don’t. Many times I've heard people talk about "Jungian archetypes" and I think, Or you might say, "cliches" or "stereotypes". Other times I’ve listed dozens of objections to particular productions, only to get the response, “I agree with all you’ve said, but I still liked it.” And that’s fine with me. There’s a level different from the intellectual at which we respond (which is part of what Venusberg is about, and why I was careful to say “different from” rather than “below”). But here’s the thing: I can’t slam the Opera for being as timid as school kids at their first dance and then sneer at them when they do something adventurous. For his first season Gockley would have thrilled a lot of locals if he’d thrown Boheme on stage with a couple of well-known names from the Met and plenty of half-hour intermissions so that all the fancy overstuffed furniture could be moved on stage and all the fancy overstuffed audience members could admire each other and themselves. Instead he took a chance on a non-traditional approach to a big work, and even if the result had been less successful than I considered this Tannhauser, I’d rather see an interesting failure than a safe, conventional production that will be forgotten the next day. He could have kept on sticking Fledermauses into the schedule, but he didn’t, and I have to salute that gratefully.

The major staging mistake was having Wolfram strangle Elisabeth, at her request. I don’t see any need to spell out how exactly she dies, and it’s already clear how deeply Tannhauser’s desertion has wounded her. She just needs to be up in Heaven at the end so that her Ewig-Weibliche qualities can redeem him (whatever redemption means in this context; at the Wagner Society’s Tannhauser symposium, someone asked why he had to die at the end, but there’s really no other resolution to his riven personality). It’s against Wolfram’s character to do something so rash, especially to a woman he loves himself in his conventional courtly way, but the main point is that there is nothing in the music to justify the murder, which has the psychological and moral implications to be an opera in itself.

I should say a few words justifying Elisabeth (and in a different time, it would be Venus I would have to defend, but the Goddess of Love requires no feeble aid from me). I don’t think she’s a simp or conventional, though like Desdemona it is part of her tragedy that she is seen that way, and not just because of her social status, but also because of her compassion and individuality. She is drawn to Tannhauser, as Desdemona to Othello, exactly because of the alien qualities that repel the genuinely conventional. Given the court’s frequent references to her as an angel, it’s revealing that she is drawn to the one man who thinks of her as a woman, and she boldly intervenes to rescue him at the song contest. And I’m not sure if I’m making this up, but I’ve always understood her to be at least partly based on St. Elizabeth of Hungary, who defied government orders (that would be either her father or her husband; I can’t remember the details) by continuing to give help to the poor and oppressed. Here’s her miracle: she was stopped on her charitable way with her cloak full of bread; when ordered to open it, the bread had been turned into roses. Like many saints she’s subversive beneath the halo, and if Elisabeth isn’t exactly the same woman, she’s that type.

Most of my objections to the staging other than the inserted mercy killing are minor or debatable. The Landgraf shouldn’t enter on a real horse. Live animals always get the audience’s attention, which is why they’re almost always a mistake, since what the audience is attentive to is whether the animal will crap on stage. Tannhauser should not play his harp with the sweeping gestures wittily described in The Standing Room as “air harp” and Venus should not open her towel to flash him, as such coy naughtiness is beneath the dignity of a goddess. I had mixed feelings about the pilgrims having their sins written on them. It is a bit over-literal. On the other hand, it’s exactly the sort of thing medieval pilgrims would do. We all draw the line in different places: what bothered me about the words is that if they are actually cut into the pilgrim’s flesh as the program states, then they can’t really wash them off later, and the words would be scarred over after the pilgrimage (wouldn’t gangrene have set in by then otherwise?), and if the pilgrimage ends when the leaves are falling, wouldn’t it be too chilly for the pilgrims (all of whom are male, though that might be Wagner and not Vick) to have bare torsos, and if they’re using the cold to punish themselves even after the pilgrimage, then what was the point?

But to turn to yet another hand, the pilgrim’s inscribed sins were echoed at the end by the children emerging from the earth with virtues written on their bodies, and again, you might find this too obvious, but without it the striking image just uses the children themselves as symbols of hope and rebirth, a use which can only be justified by those who have no memory of what being a child is like. I don’t usually like having types of people representing qualities, and if you wanted to object to the way the main women in this work function symbolically or as means of redemption, then I won’t argue with you, because I think such representations work only if you take “masculine” and “feminine” as conventional labels for different, more ambiguously gendered qualities (say, justice or law or war versus mercy or creative nurturing or peace). But it’s best not to be too literal about the staging, since its suggestiveness is its strength.

For instance, the tree and the harp center stage: are they nature and art? The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil versus the angelic harps? The living (and therefore the sexual) versus the man-created? Or did the stage picture just need the anchor of the tree as a strong vertical element, and a subordinate (sometimes horizontal) element in the harp to keep the other object from dominating the stage? The end of the first act exemplifies the method: Tannhauser joins the retinue from the Wartburg court to return to civilization and Elisabeth, and the hunters throw down their kill and start carving it up, an act foreshadowing the attempted killing of Tannhauser in the second act, or showing the Wartburg court’s destructive, possessive attitude towards flesh, or simply because that is what hunters have to do with their kill – slice it up for easy transport. Venusberg itself is staged to suggest something other than just “this place represents sex”; the Martha-Graham-does-Pilates dancing suggests the primitive or chthonic or aggressive rather than the standard funtime orgy. As I suggested earlier, it’s probably wise, particularly for a contemporary San Francisco audience, not to make Venusberg too clearly just about sex. The use of a single set suggested that Venusberg and Wartburg are not so much separate places as separate mental states, or approaches to life.

The production was like an art installation. It used an elemental approach throughout, not just with the dirt floor, but in the vivid sky blue (or watery blue) of Elisabeth’s cloak (which also helps associate her with Mary as well as relieving the steady pale ash-gray of the set; if you think of the Virgin’s endlessly altar-pieced cloak, it’s that shade of blue), and in the fires of Venusberg. I had some mixed feelings about the fire. It is a common symbol for passion (perhaps too common, though I didn’t object to its use in the Sellars/Viola staging of Tristan), as well as purification and also destruction. But the ring of fire around Venus and Tannhauser did indeed make me think of Johnny Cash, and even more than that it made me think of Siegfried and Brunnhilde. And the tree bursting into flame as an apparition of Venus was visually stunning, but the bush that burns yet is not consumed is already pretty strongly associated with a different Deity. But visually you needed the hot orange color of the flickering flames to contrast with the cool blue of Elisabeth (also, I really like watching things burn). The ending, with the children emerging from the earth and individually placing green leaves on the bare limbs of the tree beneath a steady hazy shower of rain coming down through a strong white light, was also visually stunning (unless you had already checked out of the show, in which case it wasn’t going to change your mind) and thrillingly solved the problem of making the staff flower without looking like a provincial magic show.

If I haven’t mentioned the musical side of things until now, it’s because I think there’s a lot less debate about that than about the staging. Even those who hated this production could shut their eyes and be drawn into the performance while visualizing their own preferred action. Runnicles is known for his Wagner, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be praised every time he conducts it (though I have to admit there’s usually a moment in the beginning of his Wagner performances when it seems a bit slow to me, but then either he adjusts or I do). I particularly liked Ji Young Yang as the sweet-toned young shepherd. Petra Maria Schnitzer was strong and sweet as Elisabeth. I was a little more mixed about Petra Lang’s Venus; she was vivid and fiery, but there was a sort of metallic edge to her voice that I don’t always respond to. And Peter Seiffert commanded the stage, unflagging for hours, as the tormented Tannhauser.

21 October 2007


About a week before I went to Oakland Opera’s Turn of the Screw, I received an e-mail from them warning me that their location had changed, due to real estate shenanigans beyond their control. (And earlier this year, TheatreFIRST lost their storefront stage – does Oakland just not care about the arts? These places aren’t even real theaters to start with. Can’t the city do better than this? It looks as if they can't even hold on to their baseball team.) Good thing I’m semi-obsessive about e-mail and addresses; the new place is on 3rd Street rather than 2nd, but quite a few blocks further inside the abandoned warehouse district of Oakland right outside Jack London Square. I hope it works out for them. I guess most people will just drive there. But it’s far enough off the main street to give pedestrians from BART pause late at night. It’s a shame, because Oakland Opera continued its streak of excellent productions, and that’s where they should be putting their energies, rather than having to unlock streetside Port-a-Potties to use as restrooms or setting up more rows of folding chairs (making this possibly the most uncomfortable theater I’ve sat in, after Bayreuth). If you’re sitting there looking at a big pile of money and wondering what to do with it, you could do a whole lot worse than sending it Oakland Opera’s way.

I have rows of CDs and DVDs by Britten, even his version of The Beggar’s Opera, but no Turn of the Screw, which seems like an odd omission, so this was my first exposure to it in any form (Deirdre McClure was the conductor and was a wonderful advocate for the piece). The story’s combination of the corruption of innocence with an outsider’s struggle to find a place makes it pretty obvious Britten material. The setting was moved to the American South, which is a good idea because it connects with the whole Southern Gothic tradition, though it ended up not making a huge difference in the presentation (it’s possible the sudden change in venue was part of the reason). The outside settings are bayou-like, and the old housekeeper is, in keeping with the location, a black woman (Lori Willis acted an old woman quite convincingly, but her vibrant and supple voice beautifully undercut the illusion of age). I had wondered if Quint and Miss Jessel would also be black servants, but that creates the obvious problem of having blacks as the evil characters (more precisely, sexually evil characters), which may or may not be why the Opera didn’t pursue that possibility. The ghosts were played on stage by acrobats (I don’t know if my Jessel was Ena Starling or Emily Leap since the program doesn’t give dates for their appearances, but Danny Starling was Quint) occasionally suspended from harnesses, which sounds like a cumbersome gimmick but was surprisingly effective; as is usual in such cases, the apparatus was clearly visible but disappeared for all practical purposes in the intensity of performance. Quint in particular was such a long, lanky man that his physique added to the unearthly quality of the apparition. The ghosts were sung by Marta Johansen and Gerald Semintore; the whole cast was of excellent vocal quality, and though they had surtitles they were not really needed at all, given everyone’s clear diction.

I had always assumed that any theatrical adaptation of The Turn of the Screw would of necessity make the ghosts real and lose the ambiguity of the first-person narration (is it all real? or is the governess hysterically projecting her sexual fantasies onto the children?), but Myfanwy Piper’s libretto actually preserves quite a lot of the possibility that it is the governess who is the problem. Anja Strauss is lovely in the role, both physically and vocally, but I thought at first that she was bugging her eyes and holding the expression of horror a bit too long, as if she were calculating the performance for a much larger space; then I realized it was a legitimate reflection of the character’s growing mental problems. The children are quite striking; Piper very cleverly has them speak mostly in nursery rhymes, prayers, games, and lessons, which subtly sets them apart from the adults and conveys the primitive and playfully surreal violence of childhood. I saw Nick Kempen and Kelty Morash as the children; Brooks Fisher and Madelaine Matej play them at alternate performances. Kempen in particular was quite striking and obviously had vocal training; I don’t usually like the sound of boy sopranos but he shouldered his burden manfully and seems to be sort of specializing in the role, to the horror of the nice woman sitting next to me, a long-time opera-goer and academic, who announced to me that she wouldn’t have let her children perform the role. Kempen seemed to be suffering no ill effects, judging from his buoyant bio. He lives in Castro Valley, where I grew up, and I was amused to see he had shared the stage with my younger niece in a recent production there of The Wizard of Oz, another American classic of dispossession, alienation, supernatural horror, and the search for the place where one belongs.