31 May 2007

leave a comment, join the blogroll

I've added John from uTopianTurtleTop and Rebecca from Music, Mayhem, and Miscellaneous to the blogroll, just for leaving comments. I was going to tell my little Marianne Moore anecdote in honor of the Utopian Turtletopper, but instead I'll just thank everyone who stops by. I realize that this blog is a bit of a hard sell, since I put lots of words here, often about shows people aren't going to see, and I don't even vary it with pictures of naked guys/gals/cats (though, believe me, I could get my hands on some cockapoo pictures that are so terrifyingly cute they are regulated in certain states). Bloggers usually say their primary audience is "friends and family," though to be honest we're all hoping to conquer the world, but in fact as far as I know only one person who actually knows me regularly reads my blog. This gets a little embarrassing, as I will ask friends if they've read the blog and it sounds as if I'm checking up on them but I'm really just trying to figure out if I can get away with quoting myself or if I need to come up with new material. Anyway, a very sincere thank you to everyone who stops by for a bit, whoever you are, and I'll be back after this weekend.

29 May 2007

down by the riverside

My last show in DC was Jenufa at the National Opera, with Patricia Racette in the title role and Catherine Malfitano as the Kostelnicka, and that casting should be enough to tell you it was a powerful evening. I love this opera and have never understood why those who respond to the powerful emotions and beautiful melodies of Puccini don’t respond to the same qualities in Janacek. This production was set in what looked to be the drab tatters of Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia, an atmosphere that captured the narrow world of prying eyes shown in the opera. The sets were mostly realistic with some stylized touches; I thought the finale intrusion of the villagers as the walls of Jenufa’s house opened up worked well, but the caricature of the Mayor’s wife as an easily shocked, overdressed provincial was a bit overdone, even for comic relief. Kim Begley was Laca, and I never would have thought he could look the part suitably on stage (I’ve always liked him vocally) but it’s amazing how a wig can change you.

I had heard Racette in the role here in SF a few years ago, and if I’m remembering that season right it was the only opera that wasn’t more or less a major disappointment. She brings emotional commitment and psychological detail to all of her performances; I’ve never been let down by her. She’s a good example of a performer who can make an easy transition to the looming age of digital close-ups; I once rode an elevator with her (my brushes with greatness and glamor!) and noticed that her features have a delicate beauty that gets lost over the orchestra pit. I had seen her as Cio-Cio-San last June, and since the last time I had seen Malfitano was in the same role, I had Butterfly on the brain. Madama Butterfly seems like a powerful figure out of myth, whereas Jenufa is very much a down-to-earth woman of a type who might live down the street; you get the feeling that she could so easily have a happy, normal life, which is what makes her story so wrenching as she deals with the damages of love. It’s her recognition of the love behind the damages, and her acceptance of love despite the damages, that gives this opera one of the few happy endings that I find totally convincing. Usually happy endings seem ironic, fake, or just a genre convention.

The Kostelnicka, looking like a black-clad tank, was a powerhouse as her certitude gave way to guilt over killing Jenufa’s child. Malfitano ended Act 2 with a terrifying cry at her hallucination of Death, first blasting out like trumpets, then dropping to spiky guttural fear. I rarely say this, but they should have had an intermission then rather than just dim the lights while the set was being changed for Act 3; if you’re going to break the mood, better to do so decisively. In her personal force and twisted sense of what love and propriety demands, the Kostelnicka is a good example of a type whose power and narrow sense of moral certainty kept order in the villages just a few generations ago. There were women like that in my own family: admirable in time of plague, but there isn’t always a plague and you can trace their rippling damage through the generations. Now there are other outlets for women with that kind of power, and people are anyway less inclined to bow to their inconvenient conventions, and as we slowly move away from the reality there’s a tendency to absurd sentimentality, as if women inherently wielded power with more wisdom and sensitivity than men. I wonder if, in a few generations, the Kostelnicka will be seen as an example of operatic extravagance, instead of a truthful portrayal of a type that once roamed and ruled the earth.

27 May 2007

family secret, all to do with herbs

Let me just say I was way ahead of the curve on Titus Andronicus: I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for it since I first started reading Shakespeare over 35 years ago, way before Julie Taymor and others made it fashionable to stage it, or at least to take it seriously. How could you not be interested in something frequently described as the worst play by the greatest playwright, or as so grotesque that someone besides sainted Shakespeare must have written it? In fact the play is tautly plotted and morally complex, and Titus in his madness and revenge prefigures such undoubted Shakespearean pinnacles as Hamlet and King Lear. He is a less titanic figure but still can stand on his own. So I was pretty thrilled to get a chance at last to see Titus Andronicus on stage, presented by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington DC, and directed by Gale Edwards, who had clearly seen the Taymor film but I thought improved on it in some ways.

The play is in fact grotesquely violent – the couple next to us seemed completely shell-shocked at intermission – but that shouldn't be a stumbling block at a time when Tarantino films open big at the box office, and Entertainment Weekly maintains a summer blockbuster body count. And it’s a useful corrective at a time when our country is casually dismembering and slaughtering its own soldiers and Iraqi citizens and then sweeping soldiers and citizens alike under the flag, as if Revenge, Rape, and Murder will not appear to us in their turn as they appear to Titus towards his end. Titus, like Lear, acts on a somewhat pigheaded sense of what his honor and authority demand, and right at the opening makes two fatal mistakes in a row: he kills the oldest son of captured Tamora, Queen of the Goths, and he gives the empire into the unstable hands of Saturninus, the older son of the last emperor, and our sympathy with Titus is always tempered by this knowledge. His daughter Lavinia is also not overly sympathetic; in fact, during her only extended scene of dialogue before Tamora’s sons rape and mutilate her, the one in which she taunts Tamora for adultery and for loving Aaron the Moor, she’s pretty much a bitch – if this were a certain type of Hollywood film about high school, you know exactly which wealthy stuck-up cheerleader she would be. Initially I had reservations about Sam Tsoutsouvas as Titus and Colleen Delany as Lavinia; he seemed too subdued and offhand, and she frankly just didn’t seem attractive enough to catch the supercilious eyes of Chiron and Demetrius, but as the play went on they won me over. I liked that this Titus was not a grand-stander, but someone who is used to having even muttered commands obeyed, and who is clearly thrown into shock by the unexpected but inevitable consequences of his actions in Rome. And Lavinia’s anguished suffering transformed the actress, so that by the final dinner-party she was serenely lovely, veiled and dressed in white with a red sash, looking like a Japanese bride, at the moment when her father, with all tenderness, swiftly snapped her neck to end her suffering and shame. I had tears pouring down my cheeks at the final scene, even though for me there’s no shock or suspense in what happens in Shakespeare. A lot of the credit must go to the music supplied by Martin Desjardins. For the scene after Lavinia’s rape and for the final scene he conjured up an elegantly melancholy understated adagio for strings (I assume he wrote it; I didn’t see anything to the contrary in the playbill) that framed the horrible violence in a heart-wrenching way.

As with Taymor’s film, the costumes are a combination of Roman, contemporary, and Italian fascist; Chiron and Demetrius are degenerate glam rockers (at one point filming themselves raping a woman on a couch shaped like giant red lips); the staging is primarily red, black, and white, with some touches of gold, as in Tamora’s costumes. Valerie Leonard as Tamora was more energetically evil than Jessica Lange in the film; she clearly is manipulating Saturninus from the start and is already involved with Aaron.

I give the production full credit for not shying away from the grotesque: Lavinia does exit, as instructed by her father and the stage directions, with Titus’s severed hand between her teeth, while Marcus and Titus carry the heads of his executed sons; she holds a basin in her stumps to catch the blood of Chiron and Demetrius; Aaron not only stabs the nursemaid and ridicules her for squealing like a pig, he stabs her in her groin; Tamora not only has a mouthful of the pie made of her murdered sons, but with polite greed she has eaten quite a bit of them by the time Titus tells her what she’s been eating. Some audiences see things like these and laugh; I don’t know why – is it too disturbing? Usually people will say things like “it was too over the top” but, you know, that doesn’t make it unrealistic. There was little giggling here. There was some laughter when Titus rebukes his brother for killing a fly, a fly who had parents and children; he doesn’t relent until Marcus says the fly was black and therefore like Aaron. Again, I don’t really see this as just a comic moment, though as with some of King Lear it teeters between the grotesquely funny and the deeply tragic. But it’s also one of those Lear on the heath moments when the hero breaks through into a compassionate ethical insight about the universality of suffering and the moral equivalence of all life (though as Ms. S pointed out, it doesn’t keep Titus from slaughtering his enemies). This production also does not soften the character of Aaron (well played by Peter Macon) – Taymor, in a commentary on her film, somewhat bizarrely says that having a child humanizes Aaron; in fact throughout the play he clearly is becoming more and more demonic, until by the end, like some devilish brother of Puck, he describes his daily cruelties (propping recently dead corpses on their friends’ doorsteps with signs saying Have you forgotten me? and so forth). As with Shylock, our historical experience of racism and Shakespeare’s eagerness to give everyone his or her say can distort our feelings towards the character: we can feel for the self-hatred in “Aaron will have his soul black like his face” or sympathize with his rebellious pride (“is black so base a hue?”), but distasteful to us as it is to pick up on the identification of the Moor with the devil, there’s no use pretending that Aaron is a decent man, or even just the victim of circumstances. At the end of Taymor’s film, the child portraying Lucius (the film's action is presented as this child's imagination of violence and revenge, which accounts for the extremity but not the psychological and moral depth of the violence) takes Aaron’s baby in his arms and runs off with it as if to protect it; at the end of this production, Titus’s grandson Lucius stands over Aaron’s baby with a knife, with the inescapable implication that the slaughter we have just seen has not finished the cycle of violence.

It’s often noted that Shakespeare in Titus was emulating the extreme yet poetically stylized violence of Ovid and Seneca, but it should be noted as well that he is anticipating what Beckett does, which is to take a perception of our condition and make it a concrete metaphor on stage. We sit in jars, near each other but separate, and tell the same story over and over. We are buried in sand, first to our waists and then our necks, and a loaded gun is right by us, and we prattle happily on. We show up every day hoping against hope that a promised savior will finally arrive. And the violent and vengeful kill and eat their own young.

26 May 2007

our old robes sit easier than our new

With the exceptions of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and Verdi’s Falstaff, I find most Shakespeare-based operas disappointing, though also always of some interest; but it was with fairly minimal expectations that I went to Macbeth at the National Opera. It turned out to be a pretty enthralling evening, and it helps that, whatever else is mismanaged in our nation’s capital, they start shows at a reasonable hour and have decent public transportation (I think I took two metro trains, wait-time included, and walked several blocks to Ms S’s apartment in the time I would have spent waiting for one BART train to show up at that hour). DC has been having a big Shakespeare festival all year, with some interesting-looking stuff. Staging any of the tragedies and histories, but particularly Macbeth (it’s been several years since I could think of Ronald and Nancy Reagan without hearing in my head “this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen”), in Washington seems almost too obvious, but then it’s not always wise to avoid the obvious. I saw the “Shakespeare in America” exhibit at the Folger Library and was sorry I had missed some of the theater, but Shakespeare is so essential, and everyone so knows that, that this festival seemed like the “Verdi festivals” for the centennial of his death a few years back: pretty much programming as usual. But I’m not going to complain. Too much.

The production used lots of shadows and projections. Sometimes this can look cheap, but in this case I thought it fit in well with the hallucinatory quality of the play. The staging was not period-specific, but much use was made in the projections of stained-glass windows that would appear, break apart, swirl around, and behave in a generally kaleidoscopic manner. Scenes flowed fluidly from one to the other. Last time I saw Verdi’s Macbeth, at SF Opera several years ago, the witches were in black and bounced up and down, suspended to slightly comic effect; here they were all dressed in white (and bearded, as required by bard and composer alike) and carried large white hoops (one was even used as a hula-hoop at one point), fluttering white ribbon-banners of the sort used in rhythmic gymnastics, and large white balls, which they tossed playfully as they circled around; it looked like a moonlit May night wedding party with a huge goat as groom as etched by Goya, and provided a perfect visual counterpoint to the weirdly spritely music Verdi wrote for the witches.

Lado Ataneli was Macbeth and Paoletta Marrocu was his lady, and suitably enough for this couple she was stronger than he was. Ataneli was fine; he sang well and generally acted well, but I wouldn’t call him haunted or driven. His vocal highpoint was towards the end, in the opera’s equivalent of “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” though the final effect would have been finer if he had managed to suppress his pleased smile at the well-deserved applause. Marrocu had a beautiful, steel-like voice and gave kind of a risky mannered performance. Her hands and arms were always assuming positions that were striking and stopped just short of overdone. For the sleepwalking scene she bugged her eyes, stared wildly, and increased her anguished poses in a way that earned her a few giggles from the silly but admiration from those who know why a certain type of eccentric grandeur gets called “operatic.” The rest of the cast was solid; I was particularly impressed by the young tenor Yingxi Zhang as Malcolm.

So on the whole, a slightly surprising success. In fact, after this performance, I felt that for me personally Verdi’s Macbeth is a greater artistic success than his Otello: for Macbeth he matched a weird vivid play with weird vivid music, but he set Othello, a play that ranges from the highest, most-heartbreaking nobility to the strangest, slimiest cistern bottoms, to music purely noble and grand.

23 May 2007

the Paris of Allegheny County

There were a few other disappointments on the Pittsburgh trip besides Nathan Gunn’s cancelled performances: first, despite the Internet-searching prowess that has made me a tech leader in my family (a group that, admittedly, has to lie down after changing a light bulb), I didn’t realize there was a program at the Pittsburgh Symphony (Ravel, Lutoslawski, and Rachmaninoff) and therefore also a view of Heinz Hall, that I would have enjoyed, and second, the free umbrella I received at the Pirates/Braves game was too long to fit in my suitcase so I had to leave it behind, since I was unwilling to try to explain to security at Ronald Reagan National Airport (I flew out of Washington DC) that I was not planning to bring down a plane or the government with the pointy tip of my give-away bumblebee-yellow-and-black Pirates umbrella. So much for the pirate booty of Diego the Bitter (my pirate name). I did get my usual home-team baseball cap. After much Hamlet-like deliberation and uncertainty, I ended up with one that, as a revival of a more nineteenth-century, semi-cylindrical style, was different from my other baseball caps. When Ms. S arrived to join me in Pittsburgh, she immediately declared that it made me look like a Confederate soldier, which is maybe not the part of my cultural heritage I really want to highlight. I could practically hear the Ken Burns melancholy piano tinkling, as my mournful voice-over declared in sepia tones, “Shee - yut, I should have bought the other cap.”

There are three identical, beautiful iron bridges in the center of this city of rivers and bridges, and Roberto Clemente Bridge leads to the ballpark, and Andy Warhol Bridge leads to the Warhol museum, and the Ninth Street Bridge seems to be newly named the Rachel Carson Bridge, for reasons I didn’t find out. These bridges are painted a sort of wheat yellow, and my first reaction is that I would not have chosen that color, but then I saw the yellow sandstone of PNC Park (along with lots of open ironwork, possibly as a tribute to the city’s industrial past) and then I started noticing how much yellow there was everywhere: in the stone buildings, in the football stadium seats, in the colors of the Pirates, the Steelers, and the Pitt Panthers, so the bridge color started to make sense.

Despite the increased homogenization of baseball (I loved the goofy Anaheim rally monkey until every team started selling them), there are still regional differences: for instance, the list of “Ethnic Days” at the ballpark. In Pittsburgh, there is a Latino Day, lumping together several groups that would get separate days in a place like the Bay Area, but there are individual German, Polish, and Slovak Days. I’m not seeing a big turnout on Slovak Day for either the Giants or the A’s. Every team, nation-wide, has Italian and Irish days, of course.

The Pirates were doing well until the sixth inning, when they imploded in an almost embarrassingly clumsy way and the Braves took a lead they never relinquished. As Ms. S noted, we cheered the locals as if we cared, but since we really didn’t, the loss spoiled nothing for us. We ate pierogies, a local favorite (the ballgame featured a between-innings race among three pierogies, or more precisely, three underpaid college students in large fuzzy pierogie outfits – real pierogies don’t have arms and legs – who were identified by their fillings; sauerkraut is the only one I can remember), which I realized I was confusing with piroshkis, the small meat pies. Pierogies turned out to be like palm-sized ravioli, eaten with sour cream, and stuffed with mashed potato, or mashed potato and cheese. Not bad, though a bit heavy.

At the Andy Warhol Museum, I bought a string of pierogie lights, each of which says on its border (where the ravioli would be crimped) “Pittsburgh PA Pierogie Capital of the World.” I don’t know who else is claiming the title. The back of each light says “Austro Hungarian Empire Cuisines” which is also somewhat enigmatical. The Warhol Museum is seven stories tall, but much smaller than that makes it sound. Warhol’s art is often more interesting to read about than to look at, but the whole place had a very appealing vibe. The guards were all hipster artist types, but very low-key and friendly (does that mean they weren’t actually hipster types? Or are they just Pittsburgh hipster types?), and they mostly sat there reading graphic novels. There’s a nice café and a gift shop where, in addition to the pierogie lights and some postcards, I bought a copy of John Water’s book Change of Life signed by him. Who could ask for anything more. The museum was preparing to stage a new opera based on a Chinese dissident who is inspired by the writings of Allegheny (now part of Pittsburgh) native Gertrude Stein. I was sorry I wouldn’t be around for that, since I’ve always had a Gertrude Stein thing. I once spent an hour (thanks to a faulty map of the cemetery) at Pere Lachaise searching for the grave she and Alice share. She used to insist on giving her actual birthplace instead of the simpler Oakland California because she liked to see French officials try to spell Allegheny Pennsylvania. Gertrude, you’re incorrigible!

My favorite artwork at the Warhol Museum was one I’d never heard of or seen before. I couldn't even find an identifying label. But at the back of the second or third floor there was a room that contained two fans mounted high up on the wall and about 17 or 18 identical pillow-shaped, shiny silver Mylar balloons, each roughly two feet long by one foot high. The fans were positioned so that the silver balloons floated in a gentle circle, sometimes in packs and sometimes singly, sometimes bunching up in the rafters and then getting gently bumped back into circulation by another balloon. It was dreamy and ravishing, and I loved staring at it. Occasionally a balloon would break free of the room despite the thin, almost invisible wire stretched across the top of the entrance, and the guard would put down her graphic novel and pick up a retrieving stick from the window sill, with which she would guide the balloon back to the flock. I saw at least one guy walk into the room, and though there was nothing to prohibit that, it just seemed wrong to me.

The bags at the Warhol gift shop (of course Andy has to have merchandising!) were also silver, in tribute to his silver studio, with an orange drawstring at the side, and they are so sleek and chic that I had trouble figuring out how they functioned (as I said, change a light bulb, lie down with a drink) or how to carry them. I ended up dumping it into my Pittsburgh Steelers bag, which was large enough and had clearly delineated handles. Steeler Stadium (I can’t remember which corporation bought naming rights, but they didn’t pay me so I’ll just call it Steeler Stadium) is so large it seems like a parody of a football stadium, complete with the Coca-Cola Great Hall with gigantic golden footballs suspended from the arches. Insane, and not that far physically or aesthetically from the Warhol Museum. I do regret not getting to complete the T-shirt trinity with a Pittsburgh Penguins shirt, especially since if you’ve never before had the chance to use the words “adorable” and “hockey” in the same sentence, then you just haven't seen their hockey-playing penguin logo.

The Warhol Museum is just one of the Carnegie Museums. Their museums of Art and Natural History are off in another part of town, which is not readily accessible on foot from downtown, as I discovered when I tried to walk back to my hotel. The museums are at 4400 Forbes Street, and the beginning of Forbes was near my hotel, so I should be able to walk, right? People always say, “oh, you can’t walk there” but they really just mean “it’s more than half a mile.” Anyway, the sidewalk turned to a dirt track and the street turned into a freeway and then the dirt track disappeared, and I was screwed, and not in the good way. I had to walk back to the museum and call a cab and then wait for it (within fifteen minutes of course turns into at least twenty-five minutes) while contemplating how convenient it might be on occasion to have a cell phone. Anyway, the Art and Natural History Museums are quite enjoyable, but weirdly intertwined, so that you might be looking at the flowing tresses of an auburn-haired Pre-Raphaelite maiden one moment and then turn the corner and be staring into the bony jaw of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

I probably should have suggested going back there once Ms. S joined me, but instead I wanted to see the National Aviary. It’s quite nice, and has some beautiful birds, and according to the brochure is the only bird zoo in America, but I expected something called the National Aviary to be . . . larger. We walked from there to the oddly named Mexican War Streets District, which turned out to be an appealing, Beacon-Hill-looking development of lowish brick buildings with main streets named after the major battles of the Mexican-American War, which seems like one of the odder ways to profiteer off a war, but then, Manifest Destiny was bigger in those days.

One oddity of industrial Pittsburgh is that the workers ended up living on the top of the ridge above the river – I assume by now the usual order of things has been restored and you need a lot of money to live up there, what with the spectacular views. The pain of the workers resulted as usual in quirky comforts for the well-off, since they built a couple of incline tracks up the steep hill. The inclines are like cable cars only smaller and much, much cooler, visually if not literally – on one trip we had to listen to constant complaints about the heat from a loud man who should have just let his wife enjoy the trip, which was clearly her idea. The trip lasts about three minutes, by the way. You get a nice view of the rivers and their confluence from the top as you rise up or descend, and there are viewing platforms that jut out over the hill. As we strolled along, we came to a choral group singing – the only line I could catch was “Mr Rogers is dead.” (Fred Rogers, like Mary Cassatt, August Wilson, Andy Warhol, Stein, and many others, was a Pittsburgh native – it’s funny how vivid these birthplace things become when you’re actually in the place. For instance, in Detroit, I discovered that Cathy Guisewite is a native, which would explain the “Cathy” strip’s edgy, streetwise flair.) We stood aside and listened. Afterwards a youngish guy came up to us and explained that they were part of a movement called Complaint Choirs (google them and see!) that collects complaints from their home city, sets them to music, and sings them. Most of the choirs have been in Russian or Scandinavian cities, but for obvious reasons (what city doesn’t have complaints, or choirs?) it’s spreading. He was the composer for the Pittsburgh group, and if I had it together I would have asked his name. Sorry, dude! It was nice of him to come over and offer us an explanation.

Pittsburgh is one of those former industrial powerhouses that have cleaned up real swell-like and are just pleasures to visit now, since they have the fruits of nineteenth-century industrial wealth's attempts to buy class and respectability (i.e., great museums and concert halls) without the smog and Dickensian working conditions. And unlike my hotel in LA, the Doubletree Inn did not charge me for porn I didn’t watch. Instead, they kept plying me with delicious warm chocolate-chip cookies. I now should think about getting a new job and paying off my credit cards, but even without specific events looming I’m mulling over some possible future trips. I had been thinking of going to Glimmerglass and Cooperstown next summer, but then in that compendious cornucopia of fun and fact, The Standing Room, I saw a link to Santa Fe’s 2008 season, so I’ll have to think about that instead, what with L'Amour de Loin and other good choices.

We did take a final trip up the incline after dark on Sunday, and I was sort of unreasonably excited to see a couple of deer browsing on the dark hill. Behold the power of charismatic megafauna! And though the city lying below us wasn’t exactly glittering like a handful of diamonds, there was still plenty of sparkle around the many bridges and the calmly flowing rivers, so that if not exactly like the Seine in the City of Lights, it was Parisian-looking enough to give me another comforting thought of Gertrude sitting among her masterpieces talking with geniuses while Alice talks to their wives.

21 May 2007

always some flaw, some imperfection in the divine image

Actual dialogue overheard in the lower lobby of the Pittsburgh Opera House during a Billy Budd intermission:

Wife: What was that other Billy musical we saw?
Husband: (after a pause) Billy Elliott.

I hope they managed to keep from confusing the two.

After seeing Nathan Gunn as Billy Budd at SF Opera a couple of years ago, I somewhat perversely wanted to see someone else in the role, because he was so good I couldn’t imagine a better Billy. So I had another little lesson in being careful what you wish for when, about 15 minutes before the curtain rose in Pittsburgh, I glanced at the program inserts and saw that Gunn had withdrawn from the final two performances (the ones I had flown in for) due to acute laryngitis. David Adam Moore had flown in to save the day from La Scala, where he was playing Maximilian in Candide. I give him a lot of credit for an excellent performance under the circumstances, and I would have been perfectly happy with him if I had never heard Gunn’s profounder take on the role. Thursday night Moore initially was drowned a bit by the orchestra but I think that was partly jet-lag and partly unfamiliarity with the house (which has very good acoustics, I thought, from my front-row seat; the Benedum Center is a converted silent movie palace, and unlike some others I’ve been in, it’s not just a vast frou-frou barn where sound goes to die – but it’s certainly ornate; everything that isn’t rose and gold is soft green and silver, and every spare surface that doesn’t hold a cherub, rosette, or garland is be-griffined and hippocampus'd). Moore had no problems on Saturday singing over the orchestra, and his performance was a bit more detailed (he had sung in this Francesca Zambello production elsewhere). But here’s an example of why I prefer Gunn: for Billy’s last line (“Starry Vere, God bless you!”), which became my touchstone for the role after Gunn’s San Francisco performances, Moore gave the forthright manly reading that I had always expected; but when Gunn sang it in San Francisco, it was a weirdly supernal benediction that deepened the character spiritually for me in ways I hadn’t even contemplated (and I’ve heard the bootlegs, and they don’t quite capture what he did with the line). Basically, I went to Pittsburgh to hear him sing that line again.

Gunn also just seems to have more of the inherent charisma that Billy needs; again, nothing against Moore, but Billy has to embody goodness and beauty in a way that goes beyond most of his actions, and Gunn is just a very magnetic performer on stage (which is one reason his Clyde was less passive, less of a tabula rasa, than Dreiser’s). I was disappointed by the cancellation, but I actually felt worse for Gunn than for myself: I still got to see a solid production of a great opera (plus the delightful city of Pittsburgh), but he had to cancel a fairly rare chance to do one of his favorite roles. I get the impression Billy Budd is still considered a bit of a hard sell, though I have recommended it to non-opera-going friends who are fans of the Aubrey/Maturin novels, or just of morally complex dramas. But during the intermission Thursday, while I was thinking about how haunting the saxophone melody is, I heard an old woman, who was, alas! probably a more typical opera-goer than I am, announce that she “likes operas with tunes,” which of course is just a way a saying she likes things in which she already knows every note. I resisted the temptation to punch her, because I was raised right (thanks, Mom! Please accept this tribute in lieu of not calling you on Mother’s Day, which you hate anyway). But even if you know every note of Billy Budd, you can never resolve it, which is why I think it can be tricky to balance the staging. On the whole, I liked Zambello’s production, but ultimately I preferred the one for San Francisco Opera, which I think was a little less overwrought and therefore a little less obvious about directing the viewer’s reactions. I felt that the Pittsburgh production emphasized moment-to-moment drama at the expense of the opera’s overall sense. Despite the undercurrent of the recent Nore mutiny, and behind that, the fear of the miasmic ideas of the French revolution (hence the officer’s anger at Billy’s farewell to his previous ship, the Rights of Man), you need to feel that, within the more brutal standards of the eighteenth century, the Indomitable is basically a well-run ship. Otherwise there’s no way to see Vere (Robin Leggate in this production) as an able and admired commander, or to understand why the sailors think they’re better off under him than under the French. Unless there’s a basic order and stability within the class system on the ship, you can’t see why the intellectual Vere would hate the disorderly French and prefer the British system. Vere may puzzle his officers, but they respect him – but in this production, in every scene they’re openly skeptical of him and practically rolling their eyes in a way that undercuts the sense of the ship’s hierarchy, and without understanding that power and order on the ship derive from the hierarchy, you can’t understand why Vere has to protect the hierarchy by hanging angelic Billy for inadvertently killing his unjust accuser, Claggart. Also, the opening scene with the crew (and, on Thursday night but not Saturday, the scene in which the sailors assemble to see Billy hanged) exhibited a level of exaggerated brutality from the officers and resentment from the men that, though it made for dramatic punch, also made mutiny seem like the only logical and appropriate outcome, in which case why does the crew want to fight the French instead of joining them? The crew’s unrest after Billy’s hanging also went too far – they were a Fritz Lang crowd groping relentlessly forward, and it seemed more like actual rebellion than muttered resentment. I did like the set, which contains the essential: there is a self-contained unit (a sort of jutting triangle that could be raised hydraulically) isolated in a pleasingly abstract blue element. The deck would usually rise when there was a need to show below-decks, but it did also rise to give a physical and emotional lift to Captain Vere’s last soliloquy, when he reflects on the peace that Billy’s forgiveness has given him – to me, this made the finale, though theatrically striking, too triumphant and affirmative, and I lost the meditative mythic quality of the phrase “long ago now, years ago, centuries ago” that struck me so powerfully in San Francisco. One small fault: after Billy’s hanging the safety harness was too visible (it’s hard to gauge, but I think Moore is shorter than Gunn, so the switch in singers might have made the difference). I was amused to see that at least one prominent sailor appeared to have used make-up to give himself six-pack abs. You gotta love sitting in the front row.

But these objections are mostly of degree rather than substance. Billy Budd, like Cosi Fan Tutte, another work in which Gunn is outstanding, is one of those opalescent operas that flash different colors from moment to moment and from viewing to viewing, and there’s no ultimately right way to stage them. Zambello did by and large avoid the more reductive approaches to the work. One is to present Billy as a Christ figure, which I can’t quite see – he’s more an exemplar of innate goodness than a moral teacher; you can’t quite imagine Billy delivering the Sermon on the Mount – which is the tricky part, and why the baritone has to seem like someone with more going on than just a well-used gym membership. He undergoes his own spiritual journey after the murder, from begging his Captain to save him to accepting and willing his own fate (like Wotan), to understanding and forgiveness. I wouldn’t go too far in citing Melville to explain the opera, since Britten and Co. made some significant changes to his work, but it’s worth noting that it is Claggart whom Melville compares to the Man of Sorrows. He also describes Claggart as good-looking, though without the noble quality of Billy (much as Gunther is a warrior and king, but still not quite at the inherent heroic level of Siegfried). I do find the opera’s version of Claggart less satisfying than Melville’s, though perhaps more suited to the stage. I think Forster and Crozier were trying for an Iago-like blackhole of evil, but he seems more like Scarpia, striding around saying nasty things (“then let him crawl”). Greer Grimsley was fine, but for reasons out of his control it’s very difficult not to seem like a stage villain in the part. He (and the production) handled the sexual undertones in a fairly restrained way, though I still found him a bit too openly sadistic and too physical with some of the men. These days it’s fairly commonplace to assert that Claggart’s motive is sexual longing for Billy, and I certainly wouldn’t rule that out, at least as part of it, but I think it’s a mistake to narrow his motive in that way, for several reasons. Claggart’s envy could be based on sexual longing for Billy, but it could also be based on sexual jealousy of a man superior in appearance and appeal. It could be the hatred the conventional and rule-bound have for freer spirits. Also, Captain Vere has a similar reaction to Billy: unmistakable parallels are drawn between Claggart (“Beauty, handsomeness, goodness, I will destroy you”) and Vere (“Beauty, handsomeness, goodness, it is for me to destroy you”). There are also what one might call “political” objections to reducing all emotions between men to the sexual, or simplistically identifying homosexuality (or repressed homosexuality) with evil. But the main problem with reducing Claggart’s motivation to repressed longing for Billy is that it enables a contemporary audience to assume that if only Claggart lived in a more accepting urban area in our enlightened times, there would be no problem – it reduces the dilemma to one of temporal sexual mores, no longer relevant to the enlightened, instead of a timeless dilemma of justice versus right, or of the divine versus the earthly. This opera seems to me to be more like Das Rheingold, a work examining the problem of what is just in a corrupt social order, and the dilemma of those who must maintain that order even while realizing its corruption (with the erotic as just one quicksilver factor among many), rather than, say, Carmen, a work examining the destruction of an orderly life through erotic obsession. But it’s always a mistake to single out a sole profundity from Melville’s oracular fables and feel that you’ve solved their puzzles.

08 May 2007

once more unto the breach

I had hoped to post a few more times before I continue my Nathan Gunn Tour of America by going to Pittsburgh, but the lingering headcold (or maybe it's just allergies by now?) among other things held me up. After Billy Budd I'm heading down to DC for further artistic adventures. Since I have not had a trouble-free flight in about three years (among the highlights: ten hour layovers in Dallas, lost luggage, crushed knees, canceled flights, reserved taxis that never show up), I'm hoping the odds are going back in my favor. Back in a few (like a week and a half) with more unrealistic expectations. . . .

03 May 2007

not waving but drowning

Another delightful aftereffect of my trip to LA showed up about a day after my last post – the hacking cougher on the plane seems to have given me his horrific cold. Doubly-drugged and cough-dropped, I still went to my full complement of planned theater, because suffering for art is what I do. Slightly hazy, drug-inflected reminiscences will eventually follow, as if I were some hippie pretending the summer of love was a golden age.

Disney Hall is curvy and burnished with a slightly tropical inflection, much like the audience. I like it, but found it a little odd seeing it in reality for the first time – it’s only a few years old, but already so familiar, yet I didn’t have the feeling that I had in Venice (Italy, not the one near LA) that although it looked exactly like every picture and stage set of itself I’ve ever seen, yet it had some elusive quality, possibly just light or mist, that made it worth seeing in person. Gehry buildings are so striking they’re almost instant clichés, kind of like Tarantino’s movies, where Pulp Fiction made a huge impression and then became less distinctive in a matter of months as its innovations became commonplace and the follow-up films also seemed to be a bit more of the same. I suppose time will eventually mark them (buildings, movies, everything else) as period clichés or beloved landmarks. Disney sure beats Davies, at any rate.

As with several buildings I went to in LA, it’s a little difficult to tell where the main entrance is. For example, I went in what looked like a main entrance in the new cathedral, which sent me down a long, dark aisle that ended in an elaborate gilded Spanish reredos from the old cathedral, one of the occasional relics of Hispanic baroque gold or Victorian marmoreal elaboration amid the stripped-down modernistic pale sandstone. Make a right turn at the reredos and you only then find yourself in the huge cathedral space. There are sort of unfortunately realistic tapestries on the walls, with a parade of various Venerables, Blesseds, and Saints (including Joseph Vaz, another far-flung relative), but it’s also mostly in pale browns and tans like the stone and it gives the interior a somewhat beige effect. I guess the Latin in me was looking for scarlet and gold, equally suitable for cathedrals or concert halls. Disney Hall has several possible entrances; there is one that seems to be the “main” entrance, but it leads you into one of the swirly, small spaces inside. Once you step into the auditorium, which is much larger than looks possible from the street, you are suddenly in a magnificent space, with magnificent acoustics to match (both singers and some instrumentalists, notably horn players, were at various points above, behind, and on either side of us during the performance, as well as standing on stage where one might expect them in a semi-staged performance). I bought my ticket as soon as individual sales started, but the closest they could get me then was one of the lower right-hand terraces in the back of the hall. The seats are surprisingly comfortable, which is a good thing for a performance lasting five and a half hours (two half-hour intermissions included).

While waiting for the performance to begin I was wondering if the whole trip had been a huge mistake, given the cost and the trouble and the weirdness that had already happened and the people around me. Those behind me seemed to have no idea what they were about to see. Those in front of me seemed like bleached So Cal party girls, standing and waving their skinny arms and going “Whoo!” to attract their friends’ attention. I love Tristan to death, but because of that I’m oddly protective of it, and if you don’t know what you’re in for, if you’re not going to surrender to its mood, then it's a long haul and I fear how you’ll react. But the minute the music started, except for the occasional unnecessary whisper or program-rustle (people: put them on the floor! There’s nothing in there you need to see now!), or a few coughs bouncing around in the superb acoustics, the audience was rapt attention, and I was glad I’d made the trip. The party girl stood and cheered for Salonen with the same whoops and arm-wavings with which she’d greeted her friends, after she declared that “it was even better than the last time!” I’ve learned to suspend some of my instant judgments about audience members, having had to switch expectations many times, from the Boston dowager who turned out to be immersed in Alban Berg on down, but I was surprised, given the conversations around me, and pleasantly so, by the audience's mostly silent involvement.

The musical performance was superb. I heard orchestral details that I hadn’t even picked up at Bayreuth, and there was no fading throughout the long evening. I did prefer Bayreuth’s Robert Dean Smith as Tristan for his sweeter, more piercing tone, though Christian Franz (replacing the announced Alan Woodrow) was fine. This is the second time this season I’ve heard Christine Brewer’s Isolde, and I’d hear it again tomorrow if I could. Does it make sense to describe something as fiery yet creamy? Voices are difficult to describe without getting technical, and missing the point, or floating off into vague metaphor (is it like a fire burning? Or like a river of sweetest cream? or some ghastly-sounding combination thereof?). Just go listen if you can. The vocal commitment and power of Anne Sofie von Otter as Brangaene, and John Relyea as King Marke, could be guessed by anyone who’s heard them before, but every part was cast from strength. Among the others I particularly liked the clear sweet power of Michael Slattery as the Sailor (and later as the Shepherd) and Thomas Truhitte as Melot.

Video art normally is of fairly minimal interest to me – are the subsidized ironic juxtapositions of an art student more interesting than my channel-surfing? I’m not ruling it out, but seldom stick around long enough to find out – so I hadn’t seen a lot of Bill Viola’s work before this. Unlike the video (basically a rip-off of Godard’s Ave Maria) that Sellars showed with El Nino, this one was an added richness of the performance and not a distraction, with images ranging from the beautiful but standard to the breathtaking. Each act opened with long steady shots – of waves, of forests, of the coastline – that vaguely set the scene. Two actors portrayed Tristan and Isolde, in emotional synch but separately from the stage action, so that during Isolde’s narrative and curse and during the potion-drinking we saw the two on-screen slowly stripping and undergoing a sort of ritual purification, amid many water images. The second act used fire more, and of course fire is incredibly photogenic – I used to stare at fires for what seemed like hours as a child – but the use of fire and light contradicted what is going on in the words. Instead of the more conventional images of light = truth or fire = passion, Tristan and Isolde long for the moment when they can extinguish the torch and give themselves over to the truth of the dark night and the oblivion behind the night, when they can melt into the primordial. During the love duet we see the screen Isolde slowly lighting a full bank of votive candles, and as the camera very slowly pulls back we see larger candles above and below the rows of votive lights, and as it pulls back slowly still farther we see the flames reflected in the flat pool of water in front of her. Don’t be fooled by all the candles into thinking this looks like a Lifetime (television for women who fantasize about being stalked) Valentine’s special – the effect, particularly if you are a Catholic boy, is of a very profound and prayerful ritual. It is astonishingly beautiful, and completely wrong for what Tristan and Isolde are longing for in the music. King Mark’s narration is accompanied for its length by a steady shot of a sunrise, which is a perfect effect and which would work better if light (whether from flame or sun, and instead of the night-time darkness) hadn’t been featured earlier.

Appropriately enough the climactic effect accompanies the liebestod, and I wish I hadn’t read in the program beforehand how he did this, so that I could experience it fresh (uh, maybe I should put in a spoiler alert here). Viola filmed Tristan falling into the water, and then filmed a more gymnastic set of actors representing Tristan and Isolde diving into the water, and then ran the film backwards, so that you see the body (or bodies) lying immersed and then slowly rising to the surface amid bubbling waves, as if they were both drowning and ascending, which is perfect for the liebestod, and even if that had been the only part of the video that worked, instead of being just the best idea of many, it all would have been worth it.