31 July 2011

Haiku 2011/212

sweet perfume passing
a glimpse a twist a moment
young nights of summer

30 July 2011

the Vinaccesi Ensemble at Old First Church

I haven’t heard any music, live or recorded (except for whatever contemporary urban life ladles over innocent bystanders, plus whatever snatch of something is playing repetitively in my head), since the Missa Solemnis at the end of last month. So last night I went to Old First Church to hear the Vinaccesi Ensemble performing solo cantatas by their eponymous composer.

Old First Church has an excellent concert series, but normally I’m just worn out by Friday and inclined to go home rather than pointlessly wasting most of the evening waiting for 8:00 to roll around. But the church is close to where I've been staying this month (a short and pleasant walk, about a mile, some of it past a park). So that was lucky for me, since this was a delightful way to end my musical fasting.

Who is Benedetto Vinaccesi, you ask? At least I hope you are, so that I can feel I'm not the only one who has listened to baroque music for decades without ever hearing of him. He's a bit of a mystery, it sadly turns out, since most of his apparently abundant works have been lost, despite his association with such prominent Venetian institutions of the time (1666 - 1719) as the Ospedaletto and San Marco. The raffish, carefree nature of the sinking city of heedless carnival became downright careless when it came to preserving musical scores. Eight solo cantatas are among the survivors; I heard six of them last night, sung by soprano Nanette McGuinness, mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich, and tenor Jonathan Smucker, along with Amy Brodo on Baroque ‘cello, Susie Fong on harpsichord, and Sarge Gerbode on archlute.

The unattributed texts are exactly what you might expect from the period: amorous shepherds and philosophical shepherdesses ruminate on the many pains and occasional pleasures of love. It’s a tribute to the skills of the composer and the performers that an evening of this material neither cloys nor tires; it was really a delightful concert, and a darkened semi-ornate church is as close to a perfect setting as you’re going to get outside of a frescoed palazzo. The rush of traffic outside on Van Ness Avenue could pass through the stone walls for the lapping of lagoon waters.

The vocalists were uniformly strong and engaging and if I express a slight preference for the luxurious mezzo of Scharich it might be because that is my favorite of the three offered voice-types. I did find that the lute, so intimate and delicate in nature, was sort of lost in the balance (I was sitting about halfway back, on the center aisle; maybe the blend sounded differently elsewhere), and I thought I heard an occasional instrumental misstep (but what do I know? I’ve never heard this music before; maybe they were intentionally expressive elements), but these are minor things in a really enjoyable evening.

According to the program notes, the Ensemble will be recording all eight of the cantatas this year, thanks to a grant from the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music. Based on last night, I’m looking forward to the recording; that will be a disc worth getting, if you enjoy wandering down the sidepaths of the baroque.

Haiku 2011/211

night-blooming jasmine
white stars in a dark green night
sweet perfume passing

29 July 2011

Haiku 2011/210

a spot of bright green
street lights spotlight a park lawn
night-blooming jasmine

28 July 2011

Haiku 2011/209

listless weeping clouds
rain splash on a dusty leaf
a spot of bright green

27 July 2011

Haiku 2011/208

to climactic heat
shade is no impediment. . .
listless weeping clouds

26 July 2011

25 July 2011

"I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality. . . ."

Although I firmly believe that movies should be viewed the way God intended – at home, alone or in select company, on the biggest screen you can find – I occasionally still trek out to movie theaters. I used to spend quite a lot of time in them, but that was in the primitive days when if you wanted to see a movie, you could only see it in a theater – and if you missed it there, you had to wait around for a revival house to schedule it, and hope you were free that day.

I was lured back this time by my desire to see the 3-D version of Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which is about the prehistoric paintings in Chauvet Cave in southern France.

The paintings were done by an unknown person or persons 30,000 or 32,000 years ago; there’s some dispute about the date but in either case it is so long ago that the exact number is basically incomprehensible and therefore sort of irrelevant. These are considered by far the oldest paintings in the world (and yet they look astonishingly modern in style). The cave was sealed off by natural landslides thousands of years ago and was only rediscovered on December 18, 1994, when a group of spelunkers led by a man surnamed Chauvet stumbled across an entrance. (Those experienced at this sort of thing move close to the ground, waiting for a cooler shift in the air that signals the presence of an underground cavern.) The paintings looked so fresh that there was some thought they might be recent forgeries, but slow-growth crystals had gradually formed over them, offering a geological guarantee of authenticity.

The paintings are, even outside of their sheer beauty and skill of execution, deeply moving in the way of anything that is both extremely fragile and tenaciously long-lived. The Lascaux caves had to be closed because the breath of visitors brought in molds that were starting to destroy the paintings. Tree roots reach down into Chauvet and exude gases toxic to humans. Water seeps into the caves from underground rivers. There’s a nuclear power plant glowing and smoking just a few miles away. The French government almost immediately sealed off the cave in order to protect it, so this film is realistically your only chance to experience what it’s like to be inside there.

Herzog and a minimal crew were allowed in for a limited number of hours for a very limited number of weeks. The crew was so small that everyone had to help holding cameras and lights. (In fact I keep forgetting this movie is called Cave of Forgotten Dreams because I keep thinking of it, in tribute to Gertrude Stein's play Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, as Werner Herzog Lights the Lights.) The hand-held lights have the advantage of recreating to some extent the flickering torchlight that originally illuminated these works for whoever painted or viewed them. The filmmaker's path was restricted to narrow metal walkways laid down by the archeologists studying the cave (who themselves have restricted access), so that they don’t destroy the fragile evidence of ancient life: the tiny bits of charcoal, the random footprints of ancient animal or child. It’s not a place for the claustrophobic, or even the clumsy.

The paintings are mostly of animals – rhinos, lions, bulls, horses – along with abstractions (though who knows if they were abstractions to the creators) made by palm prints. The drawings often follow the contours of the cave: hence the 3-D. The cave itself has a strange presence, with pale almost-glowing, almost-translucent stalactites and stalagmites staggered and dripping around us. But of course some of those would have been created drop by drop in the millennia since the paintings were made (others have been there long enough to be incorporated into the paintings).

I half-expected to be handed one of those cardboard glasses with one red and one green lens that used to be used for 3-D. I guess the technology has improved because my $14.25 admission included what looked like a regular pair of glasses, which fit easily over my actual regular glasses. They were not a pain to wear the way I thought they might be. The 3-D effects themselves, on the whole well worth the hassle of going to a movie theater, vary from OK to astonishing (though there was one brief moment at the end when they were so bad I had to take the glasses off).

It’s not only the cave that benefits from 3-D; there are some startling very low-to-the-ground shots where you feel you really are snaking along below the rows of grape vines near the sealed entrance. There are moments when you see things staggered in space, but those things – trees or people – themselves look flat, without the solidity that artists like Giotto or Picasso could achieve in two dimensions. But for most of the film the 3-D is so effective that, semi-ironically, you stop noticing it and it’s just as if you’re right there.

Speaking of Picasso, he seems to have tapped into whatever consciousness produced these paintings; not only did their ancient creator add different aspects of an image to the same image, somewhat in the style of cubism (as in a drawing of a horse that has multiple legs, mimicking a gallop, though Herzog calls that "proto-cinema"), but the colors of these paintings – the black on pale gray-whites and rusty browns – look remarkably like the limited palette Picasso used in his early cubist works. And the one human image in the prehistoric paintings, the lower half of a woman placed in conjunction with a bull, is similar to the Spanish artist’s many depictions of minotaurs or bulls with women.

Herzog in his husky narration reminds us of such continuities, and not only from what might be called high art: we see various prehistoric "Venuses" and he points out that their imagery of exaggerated breasts reappears in Baywatch. It reminded me of being in the Asian Art Museum with a friend who said, after examining several temple sculptures from India, "I guess people have always liked big boobs."

Not surprisingly the archeologists who study this specialized field are themselves an offbeat lot: one man (I think he was identified as an “experiential archeologist”), was dressed in the furs that would have been worn back when southern France was a prehistoric land with a lost name, mostly covered in glaciers. One intense fine-boned fellow was originally a circus performer, specializing in juggling and unicycle, before he became an archeologist. Another demonstrated his recreation of the spears and their hurling devices that ancient hunters might have used. Herzog austerely avoided the classic 3-D move of having the spears hurtling directly towards us; instead we watched them sail somewhat feebly into the field of grape vines. The hurler assured us that ancient hunters would have been better at it.

Then there was the middle-aged woman (I think she was the chief archeologist at the site) who was talking about being able to follow one of the painters through the caverns, because his crooked little finger kept recurring in palm prints. She kept saying “homme” and at one point her associate, another woman of about the same age, smilingly corrected her with “personne” and the other woman smilingly accepted the correction, but just once, and went back to referring to the painter as “homme.” I thought this was kind of amusing. There is no real reason to assume the painter was male; the archeologist did say that the painter was at least six feet tall (though I don't know how they know he or she wasn't moving a rock or stump around and standing on it), and maybe the larger size argues for a man, but there's really no reason a woman couldn't be that tall. I was reminded of a New Yorker cartoon from several years ago showing a cavewoman pausing reflectively halfway through painting a buffalo onto the cave wall and saying to another cavewoman, “Have you ever noticed that none of the really great artists are men?”

We simply do not know and cannot know who made these paintings or why – it’s even misleading to refer to him/her/them as an artist, because who knows if this was considered “art” in any sense in which we understand the term – this might have been religion or ritual or just some strange expression from one or two anomalous individuals. Artist, shaman, eccentric, who knows. Even if only rare individuals possessed the talent to create these drawings, it seems their society respected what was created, and even if we are viewing these works with completely different eyes, we too are awe-struck before them. Man is the animal who decorates.

This movie is a visual feast and offers food for thought too. I’m curious to see how it looks when the regular non-3D DVD is released. It’s worth seeing in either case. Until then I will ponder the wild Herzog coda, comparing humanity to the albino alligators swimming in the artificial jungle created with heat from the nuclear power plant.

(Blogger didn't like the length of my title; I meant to include the passage up to "the only immortality you and I may share. . . .")

Haiku 2011/206

and the sighing wind
playfully ruffles my hair
climatic romance

24 July 2011

Haiku 2011/205

something should happen
beyond that distant alarm
and the sighing wind

23 July 2011

Haiku 2011/204

poets sit, watching
clouds hide then reveal the sun
something should happen

22 July 2011

Netflix sux

Like everyone else, I was annoyed and irritated by Netflix's latest reduction in services: pay more, get less! It had all been so easy and elegant when it started. That's why I, along with apparently everyone else, was fooled into falling in love with a corporation. I was interested to read that the format my protest first took in my head -- a break-up letter -- was the most widespread format in the outpouring of irritation.

Maybe it's not such a bad thing to be reminded that your beloved friend/corporation is really a money-making scheme. (As some realist is always eager to point out, Netflix is not a charity, it's a business, and paying more to receive less is just the American way these days.) If Netflix wants to trash its brand loyalty, well, that's their business, in every sense.

What I really object to, though, isn't so much the price hike; I'm not crazy about it, but the service is still cheaper and better in every way than going to movie theaters. No, what I really object to is that Netflix has been steadily trying to pressure (or bully) customers into streaming rather than receiving DVDs by mail.

I see how it would be cheaper for them, but I really don't care. DVDs are easier and cheaper for me, and offer superior sound and picture. Streaming would require me to replace all of my home-viewing equipment at considerable expense, and all for lesser quality (I've been told reliably that picture and sound for streamed movies is not nearly as good as on DVD, let alone Blu-Ray). How long can I keep something I've streamed? Can I go back and easily watch just one or two scenes again? Can I stop it halfway through and pick it up again two days later?

These are questions I don't really want to know the answers to, because I don't care. DVDs are perfect for me, and I'm afraid I selfishly put that above increasing Netflix's profit margin.

I get very suspicious when corporations start cheerfully asserting that something is so much easier for the customer; usually it means it's cheaper for the corporation, and the customer now has to do all the production work. And I get very, very suspicious when corporations start implying that resisting whatever cost-cutting convenience they're trying to force on me means I'm resisting the very future itself. In a youth-obsessed society there's always that undercurrent of panic that you'll be rendered irrelevant by the kids and their crazy digital devices. But I'm not interested in watching [insert the name of your favorite film/director/actor] on an iPhone, and I don't believe that anyone who really cares about movies would be interested in that. Streaming, as far as I can see, offers a lower-quality, disposable product for people who don't care that much about the product to start with. It's Kleenex. (That's assuming they even have the film you want to see available for streaming; I understand there are huge gaps in what is available.)

So I'm down from my three-DVDs-at-a-time service to one-DVD-at-a-time. OK, I have quite a backlog of purchased but unwatched DVDs to work through. And I suspect there will be a bit of a spike in DVD sales; considering how long it will now take me to watch something like the six seasons of the Sopranos or even the three seasons of Deadwood, I might be better off just buying the whole series if Amazon or Barnes and Noble has a sale.

Does anyone know of another DVD-by-mail service? I'm looking to switch.

Haiku 2011/203

a frog sits, silent
another frog splashes in
poets sit, watching

21 July 2011

Haiku 2011/202

by the gliding swans
sunlight gilding the water
a frog sits, silent

20 July 2011

Haiku 2011/201

(for Hans Christian Andersen: the revenge of the swans)

a duck paddles by
ignored with icy elan
by the gliding swans

19 July 2011

Haiku 2011/200

little petal boats
tip and sink beneath the waves
a duck paddles by

18 July 2011

Abel was I

Here is some very exciting news! The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is presenting Abel Gance's astonishing 1927 film Napoleon, complete with three-screen finale and the Oakland East Bay Symphony performing Carl Davis's score, at Oakland's Paramount Theater on March 24, 25, 31, and April 1 2012.

I have seen the film twice before (once in the 1970s as a fund-raiser for the Pacific Film Archive and then again in Boston when it toured in the early 1980s) and didn't hesitate to buy my tickets -- that's plural because I'm going twice -- for this screening. The great historian of silent cinema, Kevin Brownlow, who has devoted much of his life to putting this film back together, has added in a missing 30+ minutes of film that have been discovered since the last tour, so this will be the most complete showing of the film since 1927 (and currently the Oakland engagement is the only showing planned in the United States). Because of the three-screen finale, Napoleon really does need to be experienced in a theater. It's unforgettable.

Napoleon is now 5 1/2 hours long and will be performed starting in the afternoon each day with three intermissions (including a dinner break). Tickets are available now through the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's website. It's reserved seating (for which I am grateful) and the prices range quite a bit, so you may want to think about where you want to sit before clicking, since it's Ticketmaster and you have bare minutes to complete each screen -- quite the D W Griffith climactic race.

I don't usually say this, but this is not to be missed.

Haiku 2011/199

a tree-shaded pool
leaves and petals drift and float
little petal boats

17 July 2011

splendors and miseries of a concert-goer

I went to the last two concerts of the San Francisco Symphony’s regular season. First up was a rather odd assemblage featuring this year’s Project San Francisco performer, Yuja Wang. She’s brilliant and poetic and everything you dream of hearing, but there’s already some concern over what seems like a surprising number of injury-related cancellations for such a young woman. She has commented before that she over-committed herself in the past few years, so I hope she’s learning to pace herself better.

The first half was all Bartok, which is certainly fine by me. We had the brief orchestral Rumanian Folk Dances, which traverses a surprisingly wide sound-world in about ten minutes. The symphonic sound is almost hilariously luxe for these peasant dances. I enjoyed it.

In fact I ended up enjoying the whole concert quite a bit, even though I was tired and would rather have been home. But sometimes you walk in only because you’d already spent the money for the ticket before you realized how tired and irritated you would be that particular day and you’re pleasantly surprised. I was also expecting the worst from the audience but I was pleasantly surprised there too. I was in the front row, very far right, which even I, a lover of the front row, thought was a terrible seat, and behind me was a large family that I guessed was only there for ethnic uplift (“See! If you practiced more like Yuja, you could be a soloists too!”), the worst of all reasons for hearing an artist. Before the concert all five children were busily playing with various electronic devices. The girl at the end was loudly snapping her gum every few minutes. But they were remarkably considerate during the performance, and I managed to slip into an empty seat closer to the center, so I was already predisposed to think things were going well.

Wang came out to play the Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in a startlingly short dress. She’s a petite woman and when she sat down at the Steinway it blocked her almost entirely from the view of those of us in the right-hand front row. All we could see were her naked legs working the pedals. Her dress was so short that it couldn’t be seen at all from this view – just the bare legs. It was kind of distracting. I shut my eyes and enjoyed the performance.

The second half was music from Act 3 of Swan Lake, which seems like one of those season-end oddities that Michael Tilson Thomas throws on the schedule because he feels like it, and sure, why not? (These things make me think of a young married couple I knew several years ago who were having dinner at some hotel and next to them was a friendly slightly tipsy couple celebrating some milestone anniversary. The older woman had balloons tied to the back of her chair and wished the young couple well, saying with a smile, “I spell it H-A-P-P-Why the heck not?” So, yeah, why the heck not? When else is Tilson Thomas going to get to conduct Swan Lake?) Sometimes these things don’t turn out so well (witness the disastrously amplified Iolanthe from a couple of years ago). I did find this was one of those occasions when Tilson Thomas starts the orchestra off sounding just a bit too loud and insistent, but I love Swan Lake and was happy to hear it – as I said, the concert was putting me in a receptive mood – even without the doomed dancers.

Afterwards Wang came back on stage for a brief interview with Rik Malone followed by questions from the audience. She had put a pair of jeans on under her dress, which handily was now a top. She seems rather quiet and shy and was rather charmingly and oddly puzzled that there were so many questions about the piano. Other than her remarkable skill with that instrument, she seemed much like many of the other young women in the audience. She mentioned several times that she was interested in fashion.

When asked about her favorite pianists, she mentioned Grigory Sokolov, Andras Schiff, and Ivo Pogorelich. When asked about piano pieces that should be better known she mentioned the Bartok piece she had just played and the Ligeti piano concerto. When asked what her favorite fish was, she said salmon. (A young man said that his girlfriend’s mother had taken her to an aquarium when she was a little girl and was (who knows why) horrified when the little girl wanted to ask the aquarium lady what her favorite fish was. This became a family joke and since his girlfriend’s mother had brought him to the concert, he wanted to ask the fish question. So it was kind of a cute question, though Wang seemed a bit nonplussed by it. But she was a good sport and played along.)

Apparently the injury that led her to cancel some of her Project SF appearances was a burn caused by boiling water when she tried to make tea. Malone mentioned that the year before he had asked Tilson Thomas if there was anything Yuja Wang could not do, and the reply was, “Cook.”

The week after I was back at Davies Hall for Beethoven’s strange and magnificent Missa Solemnis. The performance and even the piece itself proved controversial (click here for Lisa Hirsch’s summary and collection of links and comments). Apparently there was quite a bit of variation from performance to performance, particularly with the soloists. I heard from reliable sources that I caught Christine Brewer on her best night, but there were still some rough as well as gleaming spots. Gregory Kunde sounded a bit dry throughout. Bass Ain Anger and mezzo Katarina Karneus were consistently appealing. I don’t think this is an easy sing for anyone. The chorus was beautiful, but the sense of struggle and difficulty is I think just built into the way this music is supposed to be experienced.

Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik’s flowing solo during the Benedictus was applauded by some of the audience, which I have to admit kind of shocked me, not just because it’s sacred music and I have an almost atavistic feeling that you don’t applaud during a mass but because it seemed sort of beside the point, as if we had just witnessed some coloratura firework-display. The music here isn’t about the flash of virtuosity.

(There seems to be a semi-silly debate going on now about when to clap. I don’t see why the rule for that should be different from anything else: don’t do anything that might disrupt other people’s experience. “First do no harm” is a good rule even outside of the national parks.)

The program note by the late Michael Steinberg mentioned how deeply Beethoven studied his baroque predecessors in composing this piece, and while listening to it I was struck not just by his need to revert to the perhaps more muscular archaic sound of his predecessors but by his embrace of a baroque aesthetic of surprise: you’re never quite where you think you are here, and when you expect grand vistas you come across intimate grottoes, and vice versa. (By the way, click here to read a wonderful piece by Jeremy Denk on Beethoven’s structural humor. This is exactly the sort of technical but understandable description that non-musicians need but seldom receive. And I love that he wrote this about Beethoven, who is not normally considered one of music’s humorists.)

Anyway, I found the performance perhaps imperfect but no less moving for that reason, like those unfinished Michelangelo sculptures of the Pieta or the slaves that are all the more powerful to modern eyes for lacking final polish or balanced shape. Then I left Davies Hall and almost immediately saw a young man on his way to some street party wearing a T-shirt that said “I [heart] rim jobs” because it was “pride” weekend and that must have been what he was proud of.

Haiku 2011/198

glowing nakedness
a solitary swimmer
a tree-shaded pool

16 July 2011

Haiku 2011/197

by the lonely moon
soft clouds gather to mask her
glowing nakedness

the Nina Stemme show

Though an unfortunate need to accept realities of time and money kept me from seeing a full Ring Cycle at SF Opera last month, I did get to see the first cycle Gotterdammerung thanks to a very kind and generous host (muito obrigado, caro Primo!), and so I did end up piecing together a full cycle over the years (here are my thoughts at the time on Rheingold, Walkure, and Siegfried; it’s certainly possible, especially with the first two, which I saw a year or two ago, that director Francesca Zambello adjusted the staging for the full cycle). As predicted, if I couldn’t attend a whole cycle it was sure to be a smashing success, and indeed everyone has been raving, so, you know, you’re welcome, everybody.

This was of course supposed to be the American Ring, but that bit of branding has gradually dropped off and now it’s mostly described as an environmental Ring. To me it’s been more of a grab-bag Ring, with bits and pieces of various other concepts or stagings from the past couple of decades; there’s some Americana, some eco-awareness, some feminism, some updating, some bleak-post-industrial settings, some capitalist critique, some concentration on character psychology; if there’s a presiding bird it is not Wotan’s ravens but rather the magpie.

I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. The Ring is capacious and there’s nothing wrong with a staging that is more of a synthesis than an innovation. In short, there’s something for everybody except those trolls who feel that any staging that alters Cosima’s sacred writ is a blighted travesty, and even they get the pleasure of denouncing the sacrilege and its implied destruction of all that is good and holy in the sacred realm of art etc etc. The audience was mostly enthusiastic and attentive, though there was one horrible old woman directly behind me who bore a startling resemblance to Dame Edna’s bridesmaid Madge, though unfortunately unlike that perpetually silent companion she did speak at least once each act before lapsing back into a more considerate silence.

The long prelude and first act (insert here the obligatory reference to its being longer than Tosca/Rigoletto/Boheme) were very nicely staged. The three eloquent Norns (Ronnita Miller, Daveda Karanas, and Heidi Melton) were outstanding as they wandered wondering among the blinking computer lights and cables that cleverly took the place of their threads of destiny.

Ian Storey was a fine Siegfried and he even looks like a slightly older version of Jay Hunter Morris, who sang the title role in his eponymous opera. I was at the performance in which Storey lost his voice in the second act (I heard he was having some health problems that left him seriously dehydrated) but he was restored for the finale. I’ve already noted that for me the duet at the end of Siegfried is the one part of the Ring that always drags; its continuation in the first act of Gotterdammerung is starting to feel the same way to me (on the other hand, I’m always riveted by the scene in which Waltraute begs Brunnhilde to surrender the ring).

I think the problem is that Wagner originally intended the erotic conjunction of Siegfried and Brunnhilde to be the source of the world’s regeneration but as he grew older gradually switched his focus to the more interesting matters of Wotan’s struggle and Brunnhilde's evolution, so we’re left with beautiful (but psychologically conventionally operatic) love duets that can’t really bear the thematic weight put on them. After composing the sublime and destructive love of Tristan and Isolde, how can you pretend that a love duet is going to save the world, or even the burning lovers themselves?

So all was going well up to the first intermission. The usually sure-fire second act starts, and immediately there’s silliness: the scrim shows what turns out to be the snow and static of a TV set, and it rises to reveal Hagen with a remote control, lounging on a bed, flirting with Gutrune. There’s no real reason for the remote control, which is the sort of arbitrary “Look Ma, I’m updating!” gesture common twenty years ago, when you’d see Hamlet pull out a cellphone for no reason – that sort of thing. Then Hagen took a pill. “I’ll bet it’s Viagra!” announced Madge behind me. Thank you, Dotty Parker, and I guess with a zinger like that you just can’t wait for intermission cocktails at the Algonquin round table.

But that was the kind of jokey atmosphere set by the staging. And that was a consistent problem throughout the cycle; whenever Zambello could go for horseplay and hijinks, she would. This too is a frequent occurrence in contemporary staging; I realize there is a fear of old-fashioned “park and bark” or “stand and deliver” stagings, but sometimes, especially when you’re dealing with gods and heroes, the appropriate and natural thing really is for them just to stand there and sing. The tomfoolery set the wrong atmosphere and there was much laughter during the act, from people who are clearly more easily amused than I, your haughty correspondent. I’ve never seen the usually terrifying and menacing scene between Hagen and his father Alberich fall so flat.

The problem I had with the "degradation of the environment" theme was that most of the evidence of degradation was frankly too beautiful to seem a shame: those black-and-white projections of tall thin factory smokestacks looming up through the swirling smoke and mist seemed mysterious, silvery, and evocative instead of depressing. Mime’s trailer in Act 1 of Siegfried, its shelves lined with brightly colored packages of processed food, looked like a fun piece of pop art. Gotterdammerung Act 3 opened with the disheveled Rhine Daughters, now in brown rags, picking up empty plastic water bottles from the piles littering the riverbed. Madge behind me seemed to feel this was the ne plus ultra of regie-theater outrages. My problem with it was that with the strong white light shining behind the clear bottles, they were glowing and sparkling with light in a way that made them look like an installation at MOMA; I half expected to see a label announcing that the work “raised issues of the commodification of natural resources” so we could nod sagely before heading down to the museum shop.

The characterization of Gutrune (Melissa Citro) was quite interesting; she was kind of a blowsy sex kitten, heading past her prime, instead of the usual mild average woman manipulated and crushed by Hagen’s machinations. This was an intriguing idea, but the more traditionally gentle version would have worked better for Zambello’s conception of the finale, when Gutrune, who now is rather arbitrarily compassionate about Siegfried and Brunnhilde, joins the other women in the cast in the whole burning/inundating/regenerating finale. That music takes your soul and wraps it around your viscera and squeezes until you can hardly breathe, and the thing is that just about anything you stage to it will, in the moment, look not only convincing but moving and profound.

After the immediate glow, however, you become more aware of faultlines in the staging: it’s inherent in the material that it is women (Brunnhilde, with the help of the Rhine Daughters) who redeem the world, but it's not just any women; whatever Wagner meant by redemption, and whatever audience members take it to mean, it is simply not coming from the Gutrunes of this world, who will continue to long for and chase after power and social success, or at least the possessors of power and social success, as they always have. To effect the sort of change Brunnhilde effects, you must be extraordinary, well above any Gutrune in understanding and generosity – a hero, in fact. Flattening the distinction between the two completely misses the point. But then I've sometimes wondered about the depth of Zambello's understanding of the Ring.

I’ve saved the best for last: not just Runnicles’s perfectly balanced leadership of the indefatigable orchestra, but mainly the noble and radiant Brunnhilde of Nina Stemme. Sure, there was the occasional minor mishap but of the sort one mentions only to show that one is not uncritical. On the whole she was powerful and gleaming throughout. It was quite a coup for San Francisco Opera to have Stemme’s first full Ring cycle, and if she’s not the current world-wide gold standard for the role, I’d love to hear the woman who is. When people boast in future years that they were at this cycle, it will be because they heard Stemme's Brunnhilde.

(above is a wandering Rhine Daughter)

15 July 2011

Haiku 2011/196

bodies lying still
gently washed with pale silver
by the lonely moon

14 July 2011

Haiku 2011/195

to Dreamland's thrill ride
restless mindscape carnival
bodies lying still

13 July 2011

Haiku 2011/194

agreement or sleep. . .
acquiesce and slip on down
to Dreamland's thrill ride

12 July 2011

Winds of Destiny at Berkeley

When Ojai North! – I have to point this out each time, that’s their exclamation point – was in Berkeley last month, I went to hear Dawn Upshaw in The Winds of Destiny, which was followed by Music of Afghanistan with vocalist Ustad Farida Mahwash and the Sakhi Ensemble, featuring artistic director Homayoun Sakhi on rubab. The whole evening was conceptualized and directed by Peter Sellars.

The Winds of Destiny (American Songbook IV) is a series of traditional and beloved spirituals and Civil War-era songs as deracinated by George Crumb. He makes effective and eerie use of percussion (the accompaniment was performed by red fish blue fish percussion ensemble along with Gilbert Kalish on piano, and there are those who will point out that the piano is a percussion instrument) to create haunting effects out of songs – Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, When Johnny Comes Marching Home, Go Tell It on the Mountain, and others – that are so familiar they tend to evaporate in our ears unless twisted into new shapes.

(Of course, some of the effect will be lost if the songs aren’t familiar; in the lobby beforehand I saw a tall thin woman, possibly Bulgarian, in a dark forest-green dress with bright red suede shoes and a head of hair henna’ed a clashing shade of solid purply-rust red, saying in puzzled tones to her male companion, “Shen – An – Do – Ah?” “It’s a place name,” he murmured.)

Upshaw plays a returning vet; dressed in fatigues, trying to lie down and rest, she suffers from memories of the war, looking nervous and unhappy. She jumps a little for the loud, gun-shot-like percussion. She clutches a pillow and caresses it as if it were a child. At the end, she stands on the bed and uses a pole as if the bed were a boat and she Charon the Ferryman.

I have been enjoying Upshaw’s adventurous and intelligent performances since the 1980s. I hadn’t seen her live in a few years, I guess, since I was kind of shocked to see how much she’s aged since I last saw her. I realize she’s been seriously ill (and has fortunately recovered) and I don’t look the way I did back in the 1980s either (and obviously a lot of this is coming from my own anxieties about aging), but in all honesty it kind of threw me. I don’t mean to be unkind about it, but there it is.

I do mean to be unkind about the youngish middle-aged woman sitting to my right, who entered announcing to her companions in the loud harsh bray in which she said everything, “So I told him, yeah, I’m a smoker!” She was apparently proud of it, which gives you an idea of the intellectual level of the conversation I was forced to listen to. It was a needless announcement anyway, since she was surrounded by an immovable air-wall of rancid cigarette stench. It was so embedded in the nasty creature’s hair and skin and clothing that it didn’t dissipate. It was literally nauseating sitting next to this thing, and every time she moved, her dirty clothes produced another suffocating wave of stale stink.

The older woman to my left, on the other hand, was delightful; completely silent during the performance but pleasantly chatty before and during the intermission. She had been to Afghanistan several times, doing volunteer work at an archeological dig. She and her husband had a list of places they wanted to see and things they wanted to do together; he had died a few years ago so she was carrying out the list on her own. A really beautiful and inspiring person.

Upshaw’s voice occasionally sounded a bit worn, but there were also moments of the old purity. Characterization might have led to some of the rough passages. I think some of the songs were amplified. She is, as she has always been, a committed and powerful performer, and this is powerful material, but its effect weakened in memory afterwards, largely because of Sellars’s naïve though well-meaning approach.

Given his portrait here of a woman deeply damaged by combat service and obviously longing to nurture a child (all that pillow petting and hugging), combined with his statements in his program essay that women “are more likely to return home [from combat] with post-traumatic stress” and that “one in three women in the U.S. armed forces is sexually assaulted or raped by a fellow American soldier” (assaults which they are frequently “too frightened to report”) and that “increasingly women soldiers have taken the lead in some of the more positive [I assume he means generally nurturing, since these positive aspects are completely unspecified] aspects of the U.S. occupation” one might think that the appropriate and necessary response to the situation is not carefully staged arty song cycles but a return to the less fragile all-male military.

Is there anything in his portrayal that would provoke disagreement from the most reactionary Victorian patriarch? Isn’t he essentially evoking the Angel of the Household that Virginia Woolf found it so necessary to kill? If women are more suited to being Florence Nightingale, why use them in combat anyway? (This is not what I believe, but this is I think the clear implication of what Sellars is presenting here.)

As for women soldiers taking the lead in the "more positive aspects" of the US occupation of Iraq (which I guess means trying to undo some of the damage they helped cause in the first place), I wonder if he’s simply forgetting the Iraqi men tortured and humiliated by Lynndie England and her ilk at Abu Ghraib. Those forgotten men, assuming they have not been killed already by US forces, would no doubt have the deepest sympathy with post-traumatic stress disorder among the war criminals who tortured them.

With all due respect to the undoubted suffering of American soldiers (men as well as women), many of whom were very young and idealistic, I find it bizarrely narcissistic, given the American public’s continuing and callous indifference to the immense suffering caused by our country’s endless wars, that the victim we are called upon to sympathize with is . . . American women. It’s like those Hollywood films about apartheid or the civil rights movement that are given a middle-class white protagonist for “us” to identify with.

Also, let’s not forget that we have a volunteer army. Who is this woman, where did she come from, why did she volunteer, what did she see, and more to the point, what did she do? Singing All My Trials while looking mournful is indeed moving when it’s performed with such conviction and intensity, but after the immediate experience there’s nothing to think about or grab onto; we’re presented with the smooth surface of a generic, victimized, nurturing Woman, a monolith that is clearly absurd: I’ve described three of the women in the audience that night, and even though they all came from a very small group (white, straight, middle-aged to elderly, middle-class, educated women who attend off-beat theatrical events in the Bay Area), they were three totally different and unique people. It’s aesthetically uninteresting to ignore these differences and politically insidious: while we’re smugly telling ourselves that women (that is, our women) will nurture and heal, we have Lynndie England and her ilk committing war crimes, and plenty of women politicians and commentators excusing or cheering them.

Remember when feminism was about freeing women from the burdens of idealization, and judging them as capable adults (that is, as morally complex and responsible human beings) instead of as perpetually innocent victims? Could we please go back to that?

There was a half-hour intermission, and then Sellars came out with a little speech about the cost of the Iraq invasion, which basically repeated information easily found in the program. You know, if you’re not going to start your work-night performance until 8:00, and you’re going to have long intermissions, please spare us the little ego-trip talks from the stage. Some of us have to work the next morning.

The Sakhi Ensemble is dazzlingly virtuosic, with improv solos traded off as in a jazz band. Ustad Farida Mahwash was an endearing singer, smiling broadly at us after each song and thanking us for our applause. But it was getting late and the audience was running out of steam, and for most of them this was, however enjoyable or appreciated, inescapably foreign music, something you might hear in an ethnic restaurant, not something you'd play on the radio at home. Oddly there were no surtitles, so we had to check the program insert to find out what was being sung (the lyrics were in Pashto and Dari, and I’m guessing few in the audience understood either). Afterwards I heard the possibly Bulgarian woman saying she really liked the last song (Beshnaw az nay, the “song of the reed,” composed by Ustad Nainawaz to a verse by Rumi). It was about the pain of exile, which clearly struck home with her. But I didn’t even see the words on the back of the insert until after the concert.

The players are all refugees from Afghanistan, now living a BART ride away in Fremont. Sellars seemed to think this was a marvelous example of continued creativity in the face of destruction, of bringing good things out of tragedy, and maybe it is, but I have to wonder: brave and beautiful though the musicians are, in their homeland they were popular headliner artists, while here they are exotica for an elite, following the star performer. I find it difficult to believe they don’t regret the change. Once again an optimistic and well-meaning American is assuring everyone that everything is working out for the best, but beneath their gracious smiles and committed artistry, I suspect the exiled musicians might disagree.

Haiku 2011/193

"to grow tomorrow":
speaker droning, heads nodding:
agreement, or sleep. . . .

11 July 2011

10 July 2011

Haiku 2011/191

the blood-red roses
drop into dead-headed piles:
ruthless gardener!

09 July 2011

08 July 2011

Haiku 2011/189

vindictive frisbee
slicing off pretty heads from
innocent daisies

07 July 2011

Haiku 2011/188

vengeful barbecue
brooding day at Anguish Beach
vindictive frisbee

06 July 2011

Haiku 2011/187

snip at her husband
buzzing flies and mosquitoes!
vengeful barbecue

05 July 2011

Haiku 2011/186

hoping it's a scene
sly shoppers watch a woman
snip at her husband

02 July 2011

Haiku 2011/183

pale heat starts to rise
windows shut and curtains drawn
to keep some coolness


I re-entered the insect world a couple of days after The Insect Play when I went to Aurora Theater’s production of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, adapted by David Farr and Gisli Orn Gardarsson, directed by Mark Jackson. The Aurora not only has frequent specials on their tickets (mine was only $25) but (at least on Tuesdays) we are spared the silliness of waiting until 8:00 since the show starts at the reasonable hour of 7:00 (and they don’t seem to have any trouble filling the theater at that hour). These things encourage me to go to plays I might otherwise skip, which is great because Aurora has a very interesting season coming up.

I enjoyed Metamorphosis, but perhaps more in retrospect than during the performance, since I had made what turned out to be the mistake of re-reading Kafka’s story a few days earlier. The play is insistently described as Kafka’s Metamorphosis, but it is oddly dependent on the audience knowing the basic story but not remembering any of Kafka's details. The drastic change that has come upon Gregor Samsa (the adeptly physical and moving Alexander Crowther) goes undescribed in the play; presumably the audience already knows that this is the story of a man who wakes up one morning as a giant bug. But so many details are changed that if the story is fresh in your mind you’re likely to spend the whole time wondering why they were changed.

Some of these changes work and some don’t and some are half-and half. This version is set in mid-century America, and though the new setting conjures up associations with 1950s horror films and the underlying fear of the nuclear bomb, it also creates incongruities, even if you are willing to accept that an all-American midcentury family would have children named Gregor and Grete. The original stage adaptation was, according to the program, set in Europe before the outbreak of the Second World War, a setting in which the lodger’s speech about “cleaning up the vermin” makes more sense. And in 1950s America, why would the lodger (now an up-and-coming manager in the department store where Grete works, and a single character, without the two companions found in Kafka) be taking a bus instead of driving his own car? People like that do not take the bus, at least not in America.

The family itself is now more mainstream and conventional than the struggling and somewhat forlorn Prague family in the original, and their presentation as an idealized mid-century middle-class middle-American family is by its very nature almost inescapably satirical. The apple that his father throws at Gregor, which gets stuck in his back and starts rotting, a detail that for many readers creates an indelible sense of the physicality of the transformation, is here transformed into a loaf of French bread with which the father beats him back to his room – but why would anyone, let alone someone concerned about grocery money, hit a filthy insect with a fresh loaf of bread instead of grabbing a newspaper or slipper?

The Lodger (a sharp and funny Patrick Jones) is now presented as a possible love interest for Grete (the sympathetic Megan Trout). But by making that change they make the Lodger’s rudeness during her performance inexplicable – if he’s attracted to her, why is he suddenly treating her with such contempt? Also, for reasons I don’t understand, Grete is now a ballet dancer instead of a violinist. I can see that she might play the violin for a dinner guest, but it’s bizarre for a grown young woman to prance around the living room in a pink tutu before dinner. More significantly, setting him up as a possible love-interest for Grete mutes the astonishing moment at the end of the story when the three surviving Samsas leave their apartment and take a trolley ride to the country, and the parents suddenly realize that Grete is now an attractive young woman who could have plenty of suitors. If they realize that earlier, and she actually has at least one promising suitor, then that ending, with its sudden awareness of vibrant physical health and love, loses its punch.

Changes like that (there were many others, large and small) kept pulling me out of the story; it’s difficult to accept a new version on its own when you keep wondering why certain changes were made or why certain incongruities weren't smoothed out. This is a general problem with adapting famous novels to the stage, with the possible exception of the RSC’s triumph with Nicholas Nickleby, which I saw on Broadway many years ago. But I’ve seen some that were completely inexplicable to me, such as the version of My Antonia at TheaterWorks a few years ago that was such a foolish travesty of the novel that I made V, who accompanied me, promise that she would read Cather’s original – something which could have been done in about the length of time it took us to get to Mountain View, sit through the play, and then drive back. I’m still befuddled by what was billed at ACT a few years ago as Gogol’s The Overcoat, which changed every single thing of significance about the story, turning it into a sort of sentimental sub-Chaplin pantomime. It was OK, but why would you take a weird and unsettling and utterly original work and turn it into something generic?

I should probably make clear at this point that I would recommend The Metamorphosis, even though you can read the original in about the time it takes to attend the play (though for maximum enjoyment wait until after you see the show to do that). The performers were all excellent (I haven’t yet mentioned Allen McKelvey and Madeline H.D. Brown as the parents, both of them equal to the rest of the outstanding cast). And there’s always the curiosity factor: how will they handle the bug? Given director Jackson’s interest in theatrical movement, I wasn’t really surprised to see it was all done through movement rather than some papier-mâché thorax. As soon as I saw Crowther upstage in a suit and tie, I knew what was going to happen: as he became more settled in bug-life, and more despairing, he started losing articles of clothes (though he never gets completed naked, which I thought was a brilliant touch; the naked human body has a beauty and vulnerability that appeals to other humans naturally; instead, he is in a wifebeater and a pale pair of boxers, which make him seem appropriately drab and diminished).

Nina Ball’s set makes excellent use of the Aurora’s stage; the lower part, which is surrounded on three sides by the audience, is a normal, realistic living room set, but above is Gregor’s room, an Expressionistic nightmare of sharply tilted confined space.

As the audience was leaving I saw a woman with a video camera planted at the passage to the street, asking people what they thought of the performance. I thought she was filming her group for some reason but then I realized she was apparently with the theater and filming anyone who answered, presumably for advertising. I have never seen this done before and would like to discourage it. I do not want to be ambushed by cameras as I leave a theater and am unlikely to be persuaded to see a show by random strangers exclaiming, “I loved it!”

The show has been extended through July 24; check it out. Ticket information here; I recommend calling the very helpful box office since their on-line system is "best [sic] seat available" instead of showing you all available seats and letting you choose the one you think is best.

buzz buzz

Maybe it’s the changing weather patterns that have increased my animal awareness of what the sky is doing, but a couple of Sundays ago I did cast a reluctant farewell glance at the soft and clear blue afternoon sky as I ducked into the Exit on Taylor for Josef and Karel Capek’s The Insect Play, the last of Cutting Ball Theater’s Hidden Classics readings for this season. Years ago I read Karel Capek’s fabulous novel War with the Newts. He also wrote several plays, some in collaboration with his brother Josef, including one that Janacek used as the basis for his great opera The Makropulos Case and one (R.U.R.) that gave us the word “robot.” So you can see the Capeks tend towards the Aesopian, the fantastic, the science-fictiony-satirical.

It was worth giving up a Sunday afternoon for The Insect Play, which is funny and beautiful and frightening. It starts with a drunken vagrant, who has clearly seen better days and a higher station, staggering in a wood where he runs into a Professor of Entomology (one little quibble here about the translation: at one point it has the Professor say “laying” when he should say “lying”; our contemporary standards for professors are no doubt lower than in early-twentieth century Prague, but it still jarred on my ear). The Vagrant then nods off and finds himself part of the insect world.

There are three segments exploring that world, sort of like the Divine Comedy in reverse, though even the paradise we start with isn’t exactly blessed. We are among the gilded fluttering butterflies, all of them scheming lovers or desperate poets. This is a very funny segment, full of elegant high-society bitchery and romantic maneuvering. The earnest poet butterfly is desperately in love, but mostly for the sake of producing poetry out of his manufactured anguish, much to the irritation of the female butterfly who is trying to entice him before she gets too old. (Her helpful friends keep up a stream of kindly comments on her age.) He goes from producing sort-of-Swinburne verse to a bold new style that is sort-of-Futurist. He’s thrilled, even if the other butterflies aren’t.

We go lower from this light world in the second segment, which is down among the middle- and working-class beetles, crickets, and flies, along with a chrysalis who keeps announcing vibrantly that she is “about to be born!” There are marital squabbles, lots of bickering about homes and possessions (especially the precious ball of dung the beetles have spent their lives accumulating), a world of constant struggle often ending in arbitrary death. The Vagrant observes these worlds and comments on them but is mostly outside of them, as he is of the human world.

The second realm, darker than the first but still funny, gives way to the inferno of the ants, a mechanized, corporate and militaristic world, which is horrifyingly funny in a dark way that kills the laughter in your throat as you watch the ants mindlessly marching to arbitrary orders inspired by slogans about the nation and God’s will that are still all too familiar.

During the second or third act, as I saw the play steadily getting darker and more horrifying, I started to think that the Capeks were going to have trouble ending it: ending with the ants would be utterly nihilistic, and also would leave the Vagrant’s story unfinished (kind of like the Christopher Sly prologue in The Taming of the Shrew). Anytime you cover as wide a territory as this play covers, there’s the urge to sum up something about life, its astonishing beauty and its often pointless suffering, which means, realistically, you’re often just rearranging banalities – sentiments that are banal because we all feel them to be so obviously true and significant. Sure enough, the epilogue runs on way too long; there were several points where I thought “now is obviously the perfect ending” only to get a new series of “ah, birth!/oh, death!” conversations, which are diluted through repetition (though perhaps the endless repetition of these basic moments of life is really the point after all). I would have regretted the loss of the Samuel-Beckettish snails, but trimming would have helped the epilogue, in my opinion.

But that’s a minor quibble. I was thrilled to discover a wonderful play I had never heard of, which is kind of the point of the Hidden Classics series. I can’t believe this play isn’t staged more often – it must be an incredibly fun play to design. As I watched it I kept thinking that it would make a terrific opera, something along the lines of The Cunning Little Vixen, with the different worlds offering the composer the opportunity to display so many different colors and moods.

The large cast was really good. B. Warden Lawlor was the Vagrant but the other actors, who generally played several parts, weren’t identified by role in the playbill, so here’s the mass ensemble: Molly Benson, Derek Fischer, Myron Freedman, Dimas Guardado, Paul Jennings, Damian Lanahan-Kalish, Sam Leichter, Annamaria Macleod, Sarah Moser, Chris Quintos, Paul Stout, Trish Tillman, Nathan Tucker, and Addie Ulrey. Bennet Fisher directed, obviously successfully.

01 July 2011

Haiku 2011/182

farewell from starshine
birds sing in the lilac dawn
pale heat starts to rise