19 February 2008

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante, had a bad cold

I’d probably be pretty traumatized and depressed if someone told me how much time I’ve lost in my life to allergies, colds, and other nose-system problems. Sometimes I have to envy Gogol’s character whose nose just walked away. I had a sudden allergy attack yesterday and took plentiful medications, which left me woozy and drowsy but still sneezing and otherwise dripping in unpleasant ways, and unable to do much when I got home, and it picked up again today as soon as I got on the BART train, whose fabric seats collect dust. It might also be a delayed reaction to chopping down two large juniper-like trees (more like super-elongated bushes, actually) on Sunday. They were way too close to my bedroom window, and thinking of possible fire danger, in one of my bouts of prudence or paranoia I pulled out the axe; I also wanted to eliminate the handy bridge they provided to the roof for the squirrels and, no doubt, even worse creatures. I noticed that the rain puddles this evening were gilded with the powdery florescent pollen, so perhaps I’m just in for a long bout. I was reminded of my never-ending cold in December, and how much that threw my month off. I did get my taxes done this weekend, and here’s an unsolicited testimonial: all praise to TurboTax! I saved trees by filing electronically, and then cut them down in my backyard, so I feel well-balanced. Of course, as soon as I cut the trees down my window looked much more exposed, and I wondered if I had made a mistake.

I also wondered if there would be a lot of glare on the big screen (my television is conveniently located in my bedroom), so I had a test viewing of L’Elisir d’Amore from Vienna with Netrebko and Villazon. Yes, all my bitching about the upcoming San Francisco Opera season kind of put me in the mood to see it, and no, I don’t see any contradiction there – I mean, I love toasted coconut ice cream, but not at every meal, and sometimes I’ll happily eat it if it’s in the freezer, but I won’t bother going to the store and buying more even if I crave it, and it's like pulling a DVD off the unmanageable piles rather than buying an expensive seat months in advance and devoting a whole evening to the outing. I basically go to the theater for the show, not to get out of the house or through some weird misguided delusion that I’m in some sort of community, so the show has to be something I can’t get at home. All too often I’ll get postcards for plays that are about “romantic complications among thirty-somethings” or something similar that I have no interest in, and I just don’t see the point, when I could stay home and get the same thing for free, only better written and better acted, on any repeat of Friends. You don’t survive as a cultural institution by providing people with a more expensive, less convenient version of something that’s easily available all around them.

I did experience envy and the urge to go out of my house and straight to Houston when I saw that next season they get to hear the fabulous Laura Claycomb in Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict – I don’t care who’s in it, I just want to hear this live – plus a world premiere by Andre Previn based on Brief Encounter, starring Nathan Gunn. We’re awaiting final counts from all the precincts, but our experts are predicting that San Francisco Opera will hold on to its clear lead as the hand’s-down winner of Most Boring Opera Season in America.

Anyway, Otto Schenk was the director of this L’Elisir, which means, depending on your point of view, that it’s tasteful, charming, and realistic in a traditional way, or boring, conventional, and completely unchallenging. I’m giving it a generally positive review, since I am at heart mild-mannered and easily pleased, and I like the two leads a lot, and I always enjoy the energetic Ildebrando d’Arcangelo (who plays Dulcamara), and it’s a delightful opera, and we’re spared Zeffirelli-style vulgarity, but if this is tradition, it needs, if not a mad regie makeover, a careful examination. Do all the cheerful peasants need to be quite so clean and happy? Couldn’t someone tell Leo Nucci that Belcore is supposed to be a dashing miles gloriosus instead of a grinning buffoon, and that’s where his comedy comes from? Also, someone unfamiliar with the opera might wonder why the lovely Adina has decided to marry someone clearly old enough to be her father (perhaps there’s a hint of a regie concept there?). And this is the sort of thing that gets called “realistic,” showing once again that realism is merely a set of familiar conventions.

I don’t know if my precarious finances will allow me to travel to Houston in a year – it’s seriously a wonderful city to visit, what with the Opera House and other cultural halls on one side, the very nice newish baseball stadium on the other, and in between a light rail that takes you to the Museum of Fine Arts and the de Menil collection – fire up your Feldman and visit the Rothko Chapel! – but I would definitely make it happen if the Berlioz were on at the same time as the Previn. I’ve been on a Berlioz kick, as I’ve mentioned, and I’m not really foreseeing Beatrice et Benedict on the schedules out here anytime soon. I’ve noticed that, as with Ligeti, Berlioz’s music heard live has a vivid, detailed, ravishing quality that recordings don’t quite capture. Dutoit’s Damnation of Faust at the Symphony last spring was so crammed with life, it helped make up for the disappointment of the dry-voiced tenor in that work at the Opera a few years ago. I finally finished the second volume of David Cairn’s Berlioz biography, which took me longer than perhaps it should have, and I realized that, without consciously intending to, I was postponing the painful ending, when the disappointed old man, struggling against constant illness, sees his great opera fail, outlives his lovers and his son, and is left with only the grim determined hope that in the future his music will be played, understood, and enjoyed. It’s a story of neglect and incomprehension that sounded very contemporary to me, and it made me want not only to hear Berlioz’s music, but that of my own contemporaries. Let this expiate! as Lovelace cried. I regret more than ever not going to New York to hear Lorraine Hunt Lieberson in Les Troyens.

So despite my December headcold without end, I did make a point of getting to the Symphony’s performance of the Symphonie Fantastique and its sequel, Lelio (big thanks to SY, who got me a half-price ticket, and best wishes for a speedy recovery from one brave little soldier to another, much braver little soldier). I had drugged myself up so that I could listen without annoying myself or others with sneezing and coughing, though unfortunately the equivalent of the original instruments movement has not taken over medicine, and I was drugged not with absinthe, laudanum, tincture of opium, or other historically informed medications or drugs, but with Claritin, Sudafed, Theraflu, and whatever else I had in my satchel that seemed to promise a dry and silent nose.

I had somehow gotten the impression that the Symphony was going to perform the complete Lelio, which is why I really wanted to hear the concert – these days everyone loves the Symphonie Fantastique, and so do I, but it’s not really a rarity the way its sequel is, and I probably would have gone home searching for rest and chicken soup if I’d known. Cairns tactfully suggests that Lelio’s odd combination of solos, choruses, spoken interludes, and satire on the Parisian music scene doesn’t really hold up well, and that may be true, but I’d like a chance to hear it live and judge for myself. Most sequels suffer by containing too much of what made the original successful, and Lelio probably pushes the idea of the suffering artist maudit farther than we can follow; rebelling against society by becoming a brigand or a pirate probably seemed less ludicrous to a post-Byron generation whose world actually contained brigands and pirates, so I can’t really fault, however much I might regret, the Symphony’s decision to play only sections from Lelio, but without the framework it really does end up being just lovely bits of random Berlioz. The soloists were Stanford Olsen, Shawn Mathey, and Dwayne Croft, and generally they sang beautifully, though at a couple of points I wondered if they were fighting the same cold I had, in which case I sympathize and congratulate them on how successful most of their singing was. The chorus did itself proud as well.

Lelio was performed first, which was sort of odd since it's the sequel, but the Symphonie Fantastique was being filmed for the Keeping Score series and they used the intermission to set up the cameras and the audience. Right before the performance they demonstrated how the cameras would be sliding up and down and across all on their very own, which was wise because the audience just could not contain its excitement at the sight, so we got that out of the way before the music started. I have to say it – God, audiences are stupid! You’d think these people had been raised in a Bornean rainforest, far from any sign of the Industrial Revolution, and had only been dropped in Davies Hall five minutes before the performance started.

I was in the front row, and had enjoyed having empty seats on either side of me during Lelio, but for the filming no seats that prominent could be unfilled, just like the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Oscar night. Fortunately I realized what was happening in time to move one seat over so that I was at least on the aisle. I honestly don’t know how three or four normal-sized men manage to fit side-by-side in those Davies Hall seats. One under-recognized aspect of Wagner’s theatrical genius is the elimination of armrests from Bayreuth, so we’re spared the territory-marking they always entail. I especially love it when women who are about a foot shorter than I am can’t sit without elbowing me in the ribs all night. So I tend to sit with my arms folded across my chest, mostly out of courtesy to those around me, though I suspect I look as if I’m angrily daring the performers to please me. To top it all off, since I am visually oriented and easily distracted I often listen to instrumental music with my eyes shut, so unless the camera made me look as if I’m in an ecstatic trance of artistic bliss similar to the ones illustrated in those cheeseball ads in the playbills, there’s a good chance I’m ending up on the cutting room floor, which is fine with me.

Yes, I enjoyed the performance of the Symphonie Fantastique, though there’s something clean and precise about Tilson Thomas’s approach that may not capture the full wildness of Berlioz (Mike at Civic Center expressed this opinion in his much more timely report on the concert). But it’s the nature of wildness to recede with familiarity, so you can either accept that and emphasize other qualities – Berlioz’s classical side, for example – or risk emphasizing the grotesque for its own sake, which can also be an artistically and historically valid approach to this music. I had felt bludgeoned by Tilson Thomas’s accounts of the Brahms 4 and Mahler 7, so I was overall pleased with his approach, and I'm always pleased with this music. On the very first flight I ever took, during a high school trip to Washington DC, I put on the headphones they provided and just as the plane lifted into the air the most incredibly perfect music for that exciting moment started playing, and I listened to the whole program so I could find out what it was – it turned out to be the March to the Scaffold from the Symphonie Fantastique, music which ever since has given me the sensation of flight.


Henry Holland said...

You crack me up. To go from sneezing > squirrels > armrests > SFO having a boring schedule > Berlioz is some kind of genius.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Hey Henry,
Don't forget the toasted coconut ice cream, which I think really ties it all in together . . . mmmmmhhhmmm . . . coconut ice cream . . . .
I'm afraid it's just that mechanical mouse, my brain, zapping around in the cultural labyrinth that is my world.