22 January 2007

blogroll update

I will have only sporadic computer access the next couple of weeks, so posting will be correspondingly sporadic. You can take this opportunity to entertain yourself the way I do, by re-reading my old posts, or slide on over to the right and check out the blogroll links, including the newest one, sfmike's Civic Center blog, which has lots of nice pictures to go with the words. It's art, it's politics, and all the moist dark areas in between. Check it out for entertainment and illumination.

I'm a shy woodland creature when it comes to linking, so if you're linked to me or want to be, please approach me slowly offering treats and making soft chucking sounds in a soothing voice. Or just send me an e-mail. Either way.

19 January 2007

I am a pyrite god!

I'll get back to talking about opera shortly, but first: I was a little surprised the other day to receive an e-mail from Craig Cantin of American Idol Bloggers, inviting your humbly Reverberating Hills to become an Official American Idol Blog. ("Our intent is to bring American Idol bloggers closer together, and make a positive contribution to the Internet community. Would you be interested in joining American Idol Bloggers ?")

Although making a positive contribution to the Internet community is the fondest desire of my heart, I wasn't really sure why they were asking me. It's not as if I've written lots of posts saying "OMG OMG OMG Simon was so mean to those ugly untalented freaks!!!!" or "What was Paula on? Bitch, please!!!" Was it my incisive comments on Schlingensief's Parsifal? or my love of Ligeti and Elliott Carter? Then I remembered that very early on I wrote a brief entry that mentioned AI, grandly proclaiming that it wasn't really my kind of music. Craig Cantin is one thorough researcher! Although it still isn't really my kind of music, I have a confession: I did end up watching it last year, if not faithfully then as regularly as I watch any TV show that isn't the Simpsons. This was partly because every Wednesday at V's house I was drawn into her sordid, degraded world of reality television (don't deny it, you know it's true) and partly because I was extremely sick with the flu one Tuesday and AI was the only thing I could follow on TV and I discovered that once you figure out the names and personalities you don't need anything else.

Also, I was intensely amused by V's Iago-like hatred (described by Coleridge as "motiveless malignancy") of Ace Young, last year's resident pretty boy. Normally she conveys a calm, rational view of the world's irrationality, as if she knows that, the Good Lord willing and with some hard work, she'll get those crops in on time and save the farm, once she's finished fixing the thresher. (If you're wondering where I am, figure that this charming Quaker farm in the Midwest is equipped with a drafty garret, in which you see a useless underemployed aesthete, shivering slightly and moaning softly as in a fog, having squandered everything on absinthe and Aubrey Beardsley prints.) That's why it was so funny to see her face darken as with a great cloud of locusts when he and his hair would come on screen, waiting for the right moment to unleash his high voice. And I'd say, "I see Ace is now wearing sleeveless shirts 24/7. Work those guns, babe!" She would bitterly say, "That because he should have been voted off weeks ago -- and he knows it! What is wrong with America?" I just don't know. I voted for John Kerry myself.

I also enjoyed the variations on a theme each judge worked on his or her individual trope: Randy's many ways of saying, "Dawg, you did your thing." Paula's many ways of saying, "I love you and whatever it was you did." And Simon's many ways of being "the mean one." He's clearly the only judge anyone really listens to or respects. Yet his advice wasn't really consistent enough to be helpful. For example, last year he kept applauding Chris Daughtrey for doing everything in his own style, until he started criticizing him for doing everything in his own style. Sometimes it all just seemed like filler between the commercials for Coca-Cola and Chevrolet.

I haven't actually checked out the American Idol Bloggers link. A further confession: there was a little sadness here, since about a month ago I had received a different e-mail, urging me to Make My Hollywood Dreams Come True!!!! by auditioning for AI. Clearly, with the tact and delicate insight for which network TV is renowned, they had realized that I really am more of an observer of life than a participant. It was sweet of them to try to keep me involved. But I had already thought about my audition. I had a song and everything.

I would sing "He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)." Randy would say, "Dawg, you went up there, and you did your thing." Paula would pause, her eyes would fill with tears, possibly even induced by my performance, and say, "I just love who you are. I love it." There would be another pause, this time with a little more tension, and we would all turn to Simon. He would grudgingly praise me, and though he would add that "it seemed a little cabaret" I wouldn't mind, because I would mistake that for a compliment. And I would be America's Sweetheart.

17 January 2007

Lang Lang has lesbian hair (a concert-goer's notes)

Note to Lang Lang: Lovely recital tonight (though I did find the Liszt transcription of the Liebestod a bit lacking in poetic energy and ecstatic release; on the other hand, kudos for a delicate, understated first encore, and from a movie score no less -- a poignant waltz from The Painted Veil; yes, it's a tie-in to the soundtrack, but you waited until the second encore, one of those Hungarian Rhapsodies that always appear in Bugs Bunny cartoons, to give the audience the barn-burning chestnut their dirty hearts desired, complete with exquisite comic timing in the shift from head-thrown-back pounding to dainty little step-like figures), but seriously, dude -- get a decent haircut. That weird mohawk-mullet thing is not doing you any favors.

Note to the woman in front of me: Cough drops. For under a buck at Safeway you can get a little bag of them in various delicious flavors. They're even wrapped in paper, so that if need be you can swiftly and silently unwrap one. You might want to consider this, rather than coughing until you're red-faced the entire first half of the concert.

Note to the woman beside me: This is not a sing-along.

Note to the people behind me: Clearly you provided what Mozart and Schumann needed, which is an obbligato for sweaty nervous fingers and rustling program book. Nonetheless, you might want to rest your weary digits by placing the programs on the floor during the performance. No one will steal them! Also, you might want to wait until the music has stopped before expressing your opinion that the ancient Chinese melodies Lang Lang is playing "don't sound Asian."

Note to the woman promenading in the aisles during intermission: There are women who look totally hot wearing sleeveless black minidresses cut low front and back and knee-high black leather boots, but those women are not in their 70s. It was sweet of you and your grand-daughter to dress alike, even to the frames of your glasses, but to be honest, the outfit didn't look too good on her either.

Note to people who think exits, narrow aisles, and suchlike are the best places to stand: "Excuse me" is the polite way of saying "Get the fuck out of my way." You might even want to move ever so slightly right or left when you see people trying to get by. Let's avoid making the world an even uglier, more violent place than it already is.

Note to the audience: OK, this one is a little iffy, but I'm guessing it was not a spontaneous outburst of appreciation but rather a feeling that rousing chords = end of piece, but -- the Schumann Fantasy in C Major has three movements. It says so right in the program! Please hold your applause until the end, when you will have plenty of time to cheer and clap. . . .

Note to Davies Symphony Hall: Please become attractive. Or at least explain the bizarre "salute to Legoland" circles on all the balconies.

Note to BART: if we have to wait over 20 minutes for a train late at night, please make it more than four cars, all of which are already full of blaring iPods and cell-phone users before the symphony crowd even gets on at Civic Center.

Note to self: Possibly adjust intake of dinner and/or decongestants to prevent low blood sugar/impending psychosis. Possibly take up meditation. Maybe even stop greeting each new year with the annual viewing of Fight Club. Pause and consider: do you want to become known to tabloid fame as the Symphony Slayer?

13 January 2007

Wrong Again

I said to someone yesterday, in reference to a home project that was interrupted by Bayreuth and is now looming ahead of me again, that nothing exposes and rebukes your slovenly, disheveled life like trying to clean the basement.

I was wrong. I'm trying to update my resume now, and the basement-cleaning is comparatively cheering, sort of like Christmas at the house of the crazy lady with seventeen cats ("Look at what I found! Whatever was I thinking when I didn't throw that out?")

In between trying to put my slovenly, disheveled work life into presumably alluring form, I'm bribing myself by buying more theater tickets. Oh, and writing the occasional blog entry. . . .

10 January 2007

Votes of Confidence; or, La Forza de Something

Cal Ripken was voted into the Hall of Fame with 98.5 percent of the vote, which raises the question in my mind: huh? If you don’t vote for Cal Ripken, why are you even in the Baseball Writers Association? I liked him a lot as a player and started following the Orioles when he and Brady Anderson and Mike Mussina were on the team (now – not so much). He always struck me as pretty admirable as a player and as a man, though of course there were those who claimed to find him “boring,” apparently because they feel straining for perversity makes them interesting. I enjoyed The Streak, though to be honest I always figured: (1) his job was playing baseball and (2) he got paid a lot for it. Anyway I always liked him and even went to Baltimore in 2001 just so I could see him play in his home park, because I suspected he was going to retire that year. Sure enough, he announced his retirement. I soon realized why I would never be rich: it did not occur to me to buy tickets to the last Orioles home game of the season as a speculative investment and then sell them for big bucks on eBay. Apparently it did occur to a lot of people, but then I suspect they’re not really rich either. Anyway, a three-month drought ended as soon as I stepped off the plane and the first game was rained out, though I was still in town for the rescheduled match and so I did get to see Ripken at Camden. It’s a nice park; it was the first in the new wave of well-designed parks and there were interesting touches (arm garters on the vendors’ striped shirts, a curlicued font for the lettering) that were meant to evoke “olde timey” baseball; Camden Yards was such a hit (of course, the O’s were also good then) that the later ballparks it inspired did not need such faux aging to establish credibility. Lots of people out here talk about Bonds dominating the Giants, but Ripken dominated Camden the way Lenin used to dominate Red Square, and that was on a team with other very popular and well-known players. (And Baltimore -- great city! Matisse at the art museum, crab cakes at the wharf, and a fantastic museum of outsider art.)

Anyway – why would you vote against Ripken? I wonder if someone is going to hunt down all of them and ask. I read there were two total abstentions as a protest against the “steroid era” which seems a little silly to me. Not to underestimate the problem, but what about the amphetamine era, and the beer and martini era, and before that the cocaine and morphine era? Not to mention the separate and unequal era. Why snub Gwynn and Ripken? But that’s what happens when baseball sells itself as the nostalgic game of America’s innocence: there’s an over-reaction when people realize that there is no innocence involved. And one writer didn’t vote for Ripken and Gwynn because he figured they were shoe-ins and he wanted to give his votes to others – fair enough, I can see the logic there. But if there’s someone who did it for some elaborate reason that will prove how special he is and different from everyone else, I hope he will keep that reason to himself.

The other big appointment is Nicola Luisotti to replace Donald Runnicles as the SF Opera’s music director. I enjoyed his Forza last year but I have to say it is one of my all-time favorite operas so any performance both pleases and displeases me. Gruber was fine, I thought, as Leonora, though she was not going to drive the memory of Leontyne Price’s voice out of my head. The tenor was loud. I’m not discounting that as a value, but I found no beauty of tone or depth of expression to go with the volume. And he kept his eyes on the conductor the entire time he sang. Even when the woman whose love changed his life had re-appeared as a hermit and is dying in his arms, he was looking not at her but at the man with the little stick. Couple that with a short stout build, and I just found him completely unsatisfying. (The scene in which Leonora tells the abbot that she will not go into a convent, but will wander aimlessly until wild beasts tear her apart if she can’t move into the hermit’s cave – it gets me every time. I know exactly how she felt.)

Luisotti seems like a good choice, but I have to echo the concern that this means the opera is moving back to a repertory of about ten operas, all by Verdi and Puccini. I love them, but even Tristan and Isolde needed some time apart. And I haven’t really been particularly impressed by many of the SF Opera's Verdi and Puccini performances through the years. I guess Gockley’s first season will be announced soon and will be eagerly scanned for significant moves, and I’m hoping for the best, but if either Boheme or Traviata is on the list I want subscribers to have an individual opera "I can't take it anymore" opt-out clause.

08 January 2007

plum-blossom liebestod

One of the big events on the Cal Performances schedule came early on in the season: the Chinese opera extravaganza The Peony Pavilion by Tang Xianzu, which even in a greatly reduced version ran over three days, three hours each day. I missed the Tan Dun/Peter Sellers version that Cal Performances presented several years ago, to which I heard wildly varying reactions that made me wish I had gone (something always slips through; trying to keep up is a constant frustration). This version was closer to the traditional style, complete with amazing acrobatics and eye-popping costumes, though it was adapted to modern tastes in certain ways; for instance, in a trend that seems to be universal in the opera world, the young lovers were played by attractive people who were actually young instead of long-practiced middle-aged masters of the craft, though this shouldn't be taken to mean that there was any compromise in performance quality. Shen Fengying was particularly exquisite and moving as the young woman who dies of longing for the young scholar (played by the excellent Yu Jiuling) who invaded her dreams and later resurrects her when her portrait fills him with reciprocal love.

I was sitting very close, as is my preference, and during the intermissions I could look at the instruments and music in the pit. There were some western string instruments but mostly Chinese ones each of which seemed to have a different method of notation. It wasn't until the third day that I noticed any amplification, so I don't know if that was the only day it was used (there was the occasional sign of vocal fatigue by then, which isn't too surprising given the long and tiring roles) or if it had been used all along and I hadn't noticed. If the latter, everyone who uses amplification should immediately start using the Chinese method, since for once it was not jarring and alienating (one of the problems I had with the recent Broadway Sweeney Todd is that I was seated almost directly under a speaker and the sound was coming from there instead of the stage, as if they were lip-synching; this sort of crude amplification is why I don't go to that many non-classical musical events anymore).

Chinese or Chinese-American viewers filled the audience; it's not necessarily true that membership in an ethnic group gives you some special connection with an old work from that tradition (would a contemporary English couple, say a businessman and a housewife, have some special understanding of Shakespeare, who was roughly contemporary with Tang Xianzu?) but ethnic pride can sure fill houses. I was surprised that there was laughter at the scene in which the ghost of Du Liniang (the young woman) first appears to Liu Mengmei (the young scholar). Ghosts appear extravagant and absurd to contemporary audiences unless custom has deadened their impact (as in Hamlet), but I would think this story doesn't have much poignance or resonance unless you take the ghost seriously. And that scene wasn't really played for comedy, though there was plenty of comedy in the show, particularly at the end, when it's not enough for the lovers to be united -- they must have the family approval.

But by and large this Chinese opera had a lot in common with baroque opera and theater, including the mixture of comedy in the lower classes and tragedy in the upper, set piece arias rather than ensembles, buskined actors, a studly young hero with a girly high voice (though as an exception to my point making him a young scholar seemed very traditionally Chinese), comic pedants and saucy older women, spectacular scenes in the underworld, and above all the dream of a love deeper than death, stronger than distance, wider than this world.

the dubious consolations of being admired by connoisseurs

The Judge of the Underworld to four sinners who have been transformed into a butterfly, a bee, a swallow, and an oriole:

". . . and even though careless children in the world of the living
pelt you with pellets,
strike at you with fans,
still you may become
subjects of paintings for men of taste to cherish."

from The Peony Pavilion by Tang Xianzu, translated by Cyril Birch
(This passage was omitted from the Young Lovers edition recently seen in America, though in the Underworld scene these four did show up as acrobats.)

05 January 2007

Just in time for Little Christmas

Continuing with the at-work file purge, here is my grandmother's cranberry chutney recipe. (Perhaps I should point out this isn't work related; I just had it on-line because I sent it to someone.) This stuff is great! (Though I should warn you that once, and it may have been because I used raw instead of toasted walnuts, I dyed my guests' teeth purple with this.) I have no idea where she got the recipe. This isn't an old family formula, but it's also not one of the things she got from the Joy of Cooking and later converted into Great-Grandmother's whatever.

Grace Sullivan's Cranberry Chutney

Simmer together for five minutes:
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 minced clove garlic (1 clove -- ha! I put in about half a head)
1/2 cup chopped onion
4 whole cloves (I usually put in more)
1/2 Tablespoon salt
1 Tablespoon cinnamon
1/4 cup cider vinegar
dash of cayenne pepper (I use several "dashes")

Add and then simmer for 10 - 12 minutes:
4 cups fresh cranberries
1/2 cup raisins
1/2 cup chopped dates
1/4 cup chopped fresh ginger

1/2 cup chopped nuts
Seal in sterilized jars or keep in the refrigerator.

Simple and very effective. You can change a few things too as long as you keep the proportions the same: sometimes I use whole walnuts, sometimes sliced almonds; I've put in candied ginger in addition to the fresh; etc.

If anyone has any idea where this came from , please let me know, as long as you're not one of the people who got it from me.

the letter scene from Onegin

I'm going through old e-mails at work (a long and boring story that can be summed up as "re-org"; I may soon have all the time for blogging I could dream of) when I came across this one. It was published in the SF Chronicle in December 2004. The Chronicle reviewer had praised the opera's new, Pamela Rosenbergian production of Eugene Onegin and a woman from Walnut Creek (Ms. Peterson) had written in to say she agreed completely and had enjoyed the opera very much, whereupon Mr. Waldorf wrote a letter of elaborate and condescending castigation in which he referred to her and probably anyone else who liked the production as a "newbie" who would sadly never appreciate the true beauty of the art, which apparently consists of accurately reproducing elaborate party scenes among the nineteenth-century upper classes. I was really tired of all the attacks on Rosenberg for attempting to make opera drama, so I wrote a response. (Sending letters to the paper is what we did back in those primitive, pre-blog times.) In retrospect I would have omitted "ridiculous" from the first line, largely because it's implicit and makes my tone too contemptuous, but there you have it. Waldorf actually replied and basically contradicted everything he had said before, claiming that the voice is The Supreme Good and everything else in opera matters -- and I think this is the phrase he actually used -- "not a whit." I don't really agree with that either, but I decided enough was enough and thus the little adventure was concluded.

Someday I may post my "Letter of the Month" from Men's Fitness, for which they later sent me a free T-shirt and the DVD of Troy (love ya Brad!). Anyway, here goes:

I have just read Irving Waldorf's ridiculous letter condescending to Ms. Peterson for enjoying a production of Eugene Onegin that he disliked, apparently on the basis of inappropriate ball gowns. As a long-time opera goer and subscriber, I have seen this opera a number of times with different companies and this evocative and poetic production was easily the best. There will always be those who retreat to the opera for gross fantasies of spurious glamour, rather than for real drama about recognizable human beings. Fortunately Ms. Rosenberg has not catered to this set during her tenure, but has treated opera as a living, important art form. Ms. Peterson, I'm glad you enjoyed the production and whether it was your first or your hundredth, continue to enjoy yourself and ignore the pompous ignorance of those who think opera is about overdressed people warbling in fancy overstuffed chairs.

04 January 2007

news upon the Rialto

The first theatrical event after I returned and partly recovered from Bayreuth was Giles Havergal's one-man Death in Venice at the tiny (probably the preferred word is intimate) Zeum theater. Britten's opera shows that Mann's novella can definitely work on stage (I haven't seen Visconti's film, which is mired somewhere mid-queue on Netflix -- did you know there is a limit to your queue size, and it's 500? Don't ask how I know. I just do), but Havergal's efforts though valiant were unsuccessful. He adapted the text himself and performed all the parts except Tadzio, who was played by a haunting piano tune, which solves certain casting difficulties (especially in a one-man version) but creates the problem of disembodying a character who should be sensed very physically. I had re-read the book when I returned from Germany, so I could see that Havergal was not only faithful, but overly faithful. Those who came expecting to see hot pedant-on-pubescent action were probably mystified and bored by the long discussions of literary idealism and the Dionysian impulse. There were too many stretches of intellectual discussion that work better in a more reflective medium like print than on stage, where without context and conflict they seem overly obscure and detached from the lives being shown. There was a group of girls in the audience (possibly acting students) who giggled loudly at every mention of duty. You can't really blame them -- we've been cued by decades of angry dramas to hear anyone who says "duty" as obviously a conventional dullard and probably some sort of degenerate. (This problem arises with contemporary productions of Ibsen too, as I believe I mentioned in an earlier post about Ghosts.) Here's another case where a switch in phrasing from "duty" to something like "social responsibility" would better convey the seriousness of the concept without triggering the audience's sense of the dramatic convention that anyone who would use such terms is automatically a hypocrite (not that this is purely a cliche of our drama -- it's a cliche of our lives too, as anyone can tell who has read any news stories about fundamentalist preachers). And Havergal made the huge mistake of having the entire story narrated first-person by Aschenbach as his final piece of writing (with a eulogist briefly introducing the evening and then resuming right before Aschenbach's death, which of course he wouldn't be writing down). And then he minimized one of the story's key moments by applying the cosmetics and hairdye of the barber's horrifying and comic make-over to a memorial bust on the sparsely furnished stage rather than to Aschenbach himself. The switch from omniscient to first-person narrator completely misses the division between his work and the way he chooses to end his life, and the way that producing his profound and serious works had forced his life into a certain austere pattern that cracked and dissolved under the pressure of -- well, of what? Desire? Loneliness? Age? Dionysus? Cholera bacillus? Re-reading the story I became aware again of how much is going on in it, and how slippery its meanings are, and how little of all this was being reflected on stage. The evening had the sadness of a labor of love gone wrong.

On the other hand, I saw Adam Bock's Typographer's Dream at Shotgun Theater a week later, and it was evocative and poetic in a way that justified all the praise I'd heard. Bock had an excellent sense of when not to spell things out and his actors did him justice. And I can't praise Shotgun enough for having patrons check in at the ticket booth and pick their seat upon arrival, thereby avoiding the crowding and rushing of open seating (which I hate) and rewarding those who show up early (me, probably needless to say). I left feeling the evening had made it worthwhile to put up with the audience, even the loud braying of the woman next to me. I look forward to my next Adam Bock play.

03 January 2007

all that fire and music

The 2006 Bayreuth Ring was supposed to be directed by Lars von Trier, which is why I got it into my head that 2006 would be the year I would make the hajj; Lars of course withdrew so I missed out on his scampish stylings and Bayreuth had to hustle to find a substitute, Tankred Dorst. This shuffle may account for a slightly underdone feel to the production, though I had always imagined that German directors grew up dreaming of Ring productions the way some American girls grow up planning their weddings, using the pre-fab irony of their Barbie and Ken dolls to deconstruct various ideal stagings. As I mentioned earlier Thielemann was the acknowledged hero of the production, and the orchestra was the best part, despite some flubs by Siegfried's horn and a few overly slow patches (I have to mention these things to show I'm paying musical attention). The singers were mostly solid but not really outstanding (though I mentioned earlier the disaster of the ill Siegmund and Robert Dean Smith's rescue of Act 2; he even maintained his composure during what has to be one of the most unfortunate possible prop mishaps, the premature snapping of Notung). Falk Struckmann effectively used movement to undercut his blustering, macho Wotan, as when his shoulders gave a defeated slight slump forward when he announces that retrieving the Ring will be left for one freer than himself.

The production was an odd combination of different standard approaches; the sets were mostly of the industrial/economic/modern-world style and the costumes were mostly from the mythic/timeless style. Sometimes a scene would start one way and end in the other, as when Nibelheim appeared looking like an industrial plant only to reveal an interior cave of naturalistic style. The outfits of the gods were fluted and pleated in a sort of retro-futuristic style, as if a costumer from the 1930s was trying to design a future race who would eventually be taught democracy by Buck Rogers. The costumes were identical in the first two operas except for color, being white in Rheingold and black in Walkure. Siegmund wore heavy furs and Siegfried wore sort of a mountain-man/Robinson Crusoe get-up that made him look more oafish than necessary. In Walkure the second act took place around a large reclining head of Richard Wagner, lifted no doubt from Syberberg's film of Parsifal. Various scenes were accompanied by groups of children or adults either imitating the action or just sitting in the background, which was sort of an interesting idea but not used consistently enough to have much effect; we'd see tramps camping out beneath the underpass while Brunhilde announced his death to Siegfried, and then hours would go by without any added spectators at all. At the end of Rheingold a group of children rushed on at the end and imitated the murder of Fasolt by his brother, which would have had more effect if the "murdered" child hadn't jumped right up.

Speaking of Rheingold. . . . this production was one of several I've seen that uses the same bizarre staging of the moment in which Freia is hidden by the Nibelung treasure to persuade the giants to accept the gold in place of her. I find this scene very moving in a way similar to Siegmund's refusal to enter Valhalla without Sieglinde, because Fasolt too cannot be persuaded to give up the woman he yearns for until the flash of her golden hair and the sparkle of her eye are completely hidden from his sight (by adding the tarnhelm and the Ring to the pile). It seems pretty obvious to me that Freia is supposed to stand there, the giants plant their spears on either side of her, and the gods pile up the gold to block her from their view. This production, like several others I've seen, inexplicably has Freia lie down on the ground during the scene. Here's a little science shout-out: gold is incredibly dense, which means it's too heavy to be piled on anyone; yes, she's a goddess, but these are gods who grow old and weaken and die. And if she's lying there obviously they can't cover the singer up completely, which makes nonsense of the scene: how can Fasolt complain that he can still see the gleam of her eye when he can clearly see her whole damn head, plus large portions of her torso, hands, and feet? I'm being very literal about this, but the giants are very literal fellows, which is both why they insist on the letter of their contract and agree to change only when the object of desire is blocked from their direct sight.

I did mention earlier that Fafner was the Worst. Dragon. Ever. When he appeared there was lots of smoke and little lighting, so I thought that what was supposed to be the mouth of his cave was actually his mouth (as if he was so large all we could see was his gaping jaws: a bit of a cop-out, but it can work). Then a longish silly neck with what looked like a seahorse head appeared, waved around a bit, and was promptly stabbed. That was it? He looked as if he could be taken by a couple of boy scouts out for a merit badge. There was another bizarre bit of staging, at the end of Gotterdammerung Act 1, when Siegfried, disguised as Gunther, is about to go in to the conquered Brunnhilde and he announces that Notung his sword shall separate the two of them. He sings this, then sits down outside and sends in Gunther, who has accompanied him. All this makes nonsense not only of his statement that Nothung shall lie between them but also of the entire second act: Gunther can't fear that Siegfried betrayed him with Brunnhilde if he knows perfectly well that he was there and not Siegfried. Gunther is not a coward and a cheat, but a king and a warrior: but he's still no match for the might of Siegfried and Brunnhilde. Rather than making Gunther worse, the point should be that Siegfried is just better. Forget the bunnies in Parsifal; it’s stuff like this that makes me wonder if the director is paying any attention at all to what's happening.

The ending of Gotterdammerung was lackadaisical. Lots of sophisticated types in evening clothes stood around Gibichung beneath banners showing the gods; they continued to stand around while allegedly Valhalla was burning and then the Rhine was flooding. I thought at least the banners of the gods would, if not burn – probably not a good move in a theater with a canvas ceiling – at least drop dramatically down. If the reign of the gods is over, why are the banners still standing? Maybe Dorst was making a point about the continuing hold of gods no one believes in any longer, but that's not what's going on at the end of this opera. And the staging could have used some action. When you listen to that music you feel certain that something vital is happening, but if you were watching this staging with, as it were, the sound turned off, you'd pretty much just see a bunch of people milling about, so that the end of the world looked considerably more sedate than the Munich railway station I arrived at the next day.

But I have to say, it is a thrill to hear the Ring in Bayreuth – Tankred, all is forgiven, almost.

02 January 2007

Dead Presidents

Today was a "national day of mourning" for Gerald Ford, which basically means there was no mail delivery, which always annoys me. At least we were spared the orgy of delusion that accompanied Reagan's overdue trip to the Judgment Seat, a national outpouring that left me so enraged that I forced myself to protest by doing something positive (volunteering for Project Open Hand).

The description of Gerald Ford that has stuck with me all these years came from (I think) Tip O'Neill, and I'm paraphrasing here: he's not a bad man, he just doesn't see very far; if he saw a hungry child he would hand over his lunch, but he doesn't see that cutting funds from school lunch programs results in thousands of hungry kids.

I never thought that there was a secret deal behind the Nixon pardon, but I still can't forgive him for that even if it was sincerely meant as a healing gesture. At the time pundits proclaimed that "no one wants to see ex-President Nixon behind bars" to which I thought au contraire, I do; and "hasn't he been punished enough?" to which I thought, no, not nearly enough. The only thing that would have made me happier than seeing Nixon behind bars is seeing him joined several years later by Ronald Iran-Contra Reagan.

Why this reluctance to see the powerful brought low by their own crimes? The Elizabethans were made of sterner stuff and frequently told sad tales of the deaths of kings as a warning and rebuke to the excesses of the powerful. Why have we forgotten that actions have consequences, or rather, why are the powerful to be protected from their own mistakes while the poor receive lectures on their moral failings? Did cushioning Nixon's fall help lead to a culture in which a President can send Americans to war based on lies and suffer no consequences?

We have a ruling class that supports the free market until it costs them, supports the troops but won't allow pictures of their dead bodies to be shown, refuses to cut back on wasteful oil use as if that had no effect on our policies or the planet -- you can supply your own favorite cause and the cynical way its reality is ignored or distorted. There's a stereotype prevalent that "liberals" are soft of head and heart and "conservatives" are hard-headed, practical types who deal with the world as it is. But most people without money or connections know that the bills always come due and eventually every bully meets someone bigger and stronger, or just smarter. I'm sure Ford was personally a nice man, but I'll save my tears for those who won't be getting sympathy from official mourners.