30 September 2007

unhappy lieder are unhappy in their own way

I have just returned from hearing Olga Borodina at Zellerbach Hall. Cal Performances Director Robert Cole came out beforehand, but since I was in the front row and he was using a microphone I couldn’t make out most of what he said, except for “bronchitis” and “begs your indulgence.” Why is it that Borodina sounds better with bronchitis than most people do when in perfect health? There was an occasional sense of strain on soft or high notes, and she omitted one of the songs in the second half, but otherwise there was so much to admire and enjoy in her Venetian sunset of a voice. She sang Tchaikovsky songs in the first half and Rachmaninoff in the second; although she clearly would have preferred going home and getting under the covers, she came out to the ovations, blew her nose, coughed, gave a slight smile and shrug, and seduced us into submissive Samsonhood with Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix.

There were many Russian speakers there (though unfortunately not enough to fill cavernous Zellerbach), but even so there was much following of texts (printed not in Cyrillic but transliterated and then translated) with the accompanying rustle and rattle of programs. At least I assume that’s what was going on. Maybe people were just folding origami cranes – I hear that if you fold a thousand of them, peace descends on the concert hall. I had read the texts beforehand and decided just to listen, a decision I was happy with, since Russian songs have, let me say, certain similarities in theme. Afterwards, wandering through the misty poplars near the mournful river, my large, dark, incredibly near-sighted eyes saw an answer; and so here, with trembling heart and affectionate respect, I present the all-purpose generic one-size-fits-all Russian song to the cold indifferent world:

Russian Song

Though it is morning, the sun has set;
The fragrant meadow regards me with insolence.
Ah, little bird, why do you sing so sadly?
Hey, bird, I’m talking to you!
Away you have flown on the mournful breeze!
So you, my love, have flown away like a dream,
Taking with you my anguished heart,
And several nice shirts
Of which I am now bereft.

29 September 2007

hypocrite lecteur - mon semblable - mon frere!

Recently I stumbled across a French translation of this blog, which mystified, fascinated, and delighted me. I have no idea who prompted this or why, and in any case I’ve messed up the records by obsessively returning to it myself, but as I’ve also found out there are a surprising number of Patrick Vazes out there (surprising since it’s a fairly odd combination of an Irish given name and a Portuguese family name, but clearly not as odd as I had thought), one of whom is a professional soccer player in France (unfortunately for me, I am not a professional soccer player), perhaps this was someone looking up a favorite footballer and being surprised by his many opinions on theatrical performances in California. In case anyone is wondering, I do not play soccer in France, I do not sell real estate in Florida, and I am not the assistant manager of a garage in Goa. Right now, in fact, I’m not doing much here in my native San Francisco Bay Area besides gazing into the funhouse mirror which is the automatic translator’s version of me. I wouldn’t call myself the best judge of le mot juste en francais, but it seems pretty accurate, though I have no idea if idioms like “got my Irish up” make any sense at all in French; on the other hand, from now on when Lunch Lady Doris appears on the Simpsons I know I’m going to think of her as “Mme Doris de dejeuner,” which sounds delightful, which is why it definitely gives you an amusing wrong impression. I checked the recent entry on my plumbing problems to see how the translation device handled my little pun on “crappy.” I don’t think “une semaine miserable” carries the joke as well, though on further reflection perhaps the reference is to the chase through the sewers in Hugo’s novel, in which case I credit the Google Automatic Translator for an effective if higher-toned substitute joke.

I found the translation through my statcounter.com statistics, which I find fascinating now that I’ve bothered to learn how to check them. Most of the keyword searches are fairly standard and unsurprising (though unlike M. C- at the Standing Room, I’ve never to my knowledge had searches for “Nathan Gunn naked” but I have had “Greer Grimsley naked”; since Grimsley was Claggart in the Pittsburgh Billy Budd I saw, I’m wondering if someone shouldn’t just stage an all-nude Billy Budd and get it over with). But to the guy (I’m safe on the gender here) who keeps searching for “menstrual pad porn” and ending up with my weird trip to LA in which I found the pad in my suitcase and was charged for porn I didn’t watch, I know I’m not supplying what you’re looking for, and please go away, you’re creeping me out. (I was actually most creeped out when he spelled it “menstrul pad porn” – something about misspelling makes it so much worse to me.) To all those searching for “guys gone wild” who end up with my entry on last June’s Don Giovanni, I wish to say that, in retrospect, I probably should have chosen a different title, and I wish you luck on your well-nigh impossible quest through the vast reaches of The Interwebs to find pictures of hot shirtless guys (damn, I just let myself in for all those searches – this thing is like Tar Baby – and now I’m going to get the Toni Morrison/Joel Chandler Harris searches – damn!). To all the people out there with narwhal searches, my apologies on my lack of any but the most frivolous and marginal information, which in fact pretty much just amounts to the blog’s subtitle – though maybe it’s just one person with a narwhal thing, in which case I sincerely hope you find the answer to your poignant search term “What makes a narwhal happy?” and may you and your narwhal(s) find said happiness for many years to come.

And speaking of happiness, I got a needed jolt of it myself when I discovered that the Boston Celebrity Series (Bay Area residents, think of Cal Performances or San Francisco Performances) not only has a blog but they say nice things about me and have me on their blogroll. What a refreshing change from my emotionally abusive relationships with the local arts groups: in case anyone is wondering, no, the San Francisco Symphony did not invite me to their Blogger’s Night at the Symphony last July (I've hidden the pain until now); though in fairness to them I should note that (1) they almost certainly have never heard of me; (2) even if they have heard of me, they probably don’t read me; and (3) if anyone over there does read me, they probably just figured, “Yeah, he’ll blog about the evening – six months after it happens, and in the middle will be some weird-ass digression about how professional football is like Kabuki theater, and he’ll just end up bitching about how ugly Davies Hall is and how much he hates it when conductors make little jokes before the performance, so we’ll save our cookie trays for the worthy, thank you very much.” Fine. I’ll still show up with fistfuls of cash begging for you, O local Symphony, once I figure out how I’m paying for my home repairs. To return to less dysfunctional relationships (aren’t long-distance relationships really the best kind?), I’ve added “Aisle Be Seeing You” (the Boston Celebrity Series blog) to the blogroll; once I managed to tear my eyes away from the entry about me, I found the self-described “goofy promotional tool and informative arts link generator” full of lots of interesting and entertaining stuff. I have to say I got an extra thrill out of the entry and link because so many of the memorable performances I saw when I lived in Boston were brought to me by my annual subscription to the Celebrity Series. If you have me on your blogroll or want to be on mine, or just want to give me an extra thrill of your own, French or not, drop me a line. . . .

out of the strong came forth sweetness

Actual overheard dialogue during the first intermission of Samson et Delilah at San Francisco Opera last Tuesday:

Man with ratty shoulder-length iron gray hair: “You’re not wearing any panties?!?”

Woman who sounded (and looked) like Lunch Lady Doris from the Simpsons: “Tell the whole world, why dontcha!”

It’s nice to see people getting into the spirit of the opera. You know who else got into the spirit? The San Francisco Opera Chorus. They switched from anguished pleading with Jehovah to the sybaritic laughter of Dagon’s devotees with the assurance, conviction, and steady tone with which a Republican politician switches from denouncing gay rights to cruising public toilets for rough trade. Their contribution may have been such a highlight because the Samson of Clifton Forbis was so disappointing. I thought he sounded strangled and wavering in tone. He got better in the later scenes, but there’s not much left of this fairly short opera by then. (Here’s a little digression on opera length, and it’s not my usual plea that anything that lasts over three hours start no later than 7:30: I was recently reprimanded by another commenter over at The Iron Tongue of Midnight for saying that Messiaen’s St. Francois lasted five hours. I thought he had a valid point about how much music there actually is, but since I’m not discussing the works as a musicologist (because I’m not one) but as an audience member, I do include the intermissions in the running time because I find they affect the total experience. So in order to avoid getting overly pedantic about saying “the performance” instead of “the opera”, I should make it clear that any references I make to running time refer to the time you’d spend in a theater and not what you’d spend listening to a CD.) The various High Priests and Old Hebrews were fine but no one really knocked me out. That leaves Olga Borodina’s Delilah, emerging like Kundry from ululating flower maidens, who was our best hope, if not Samson's, all along. Before the overture the disembodied voice from above had informed us that Ms. Borodina had been suffering from a cold – a great groan went up – but she had agreed to sing tonight – sighs of relief – and she asked for our understanding. We understood. I thought she sang richly and acted with conviction. The announcement could have been an insurance policy. She might have held back at a point or two, but the scenery and costumes were always there to supply any necessary extra oomph. I’ve heard that these were officially inspired by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, but the usual reference I hear is to Cecil B. DeMille, who might actually be ranked higher these days by tastemakers who care about such things. The dusty garments of the oppressed Hebrews were in tasteful muted shades that matched the palm trees and temples, but the Philistines glittered and glowed with many colors and sparkling jewels. To the Righteous may be salvation in the form of a kick-ass final curtain, but the ungodly (or the differently-godded) always get the best tunes and all the big dance numbers. I kept thinking of the wonderful intertitle from DeMille’s 1927 King of Kings: “Harness my zebras – gift of the Nubian King! This Carpenter [that would be Jesus] shall learn that He cannot hold a man [that would be her boyfriend, Judas] from Mary Magdalene!” (For those unfamiliar with the story, it is in fact she who learns so very much from the Carpenter.) The only major costuming mistake was for the male dancers in the orgy (I can’t really call it a Bacchanal, since it’s for Dagon – you see, I’m overly precise by nature, so I try to avoid extra pedantry), who wear baggy golden briefs that look like diapers designed by Liberace. It is naturally difficult for one of my retiring and melancholy disposition to judge an orgy, but what I saw on stage seemed fully as overwrought in intention yet listless in action as such things undoubtedly are in real life. I don’t mean to condescend to the opera by referring to DeMille; it’s just that type of thing, and excellent of its kind. I find the music quite beautiful (since Saint-Saens actually wrote Vinteuil’s “little phrase,” who am I to be more aesthetically refined than Charles Swann?), and the story is dramatic and effective (though without the Miltonic depth of Handel’s version), but I don’t know if the feelings it inspires can actually be called religious. It’s not the Saint Matthew Passion, but what else is? If you were looking for a film about religion, one that makes you think or feel about it, you’re better off watching Ordet or Dead Man Walking than King of Kings. Musically, you might even be better off with purely instrumental, non-descriptive music and leaving yourself open for the vertiginous and occasional descent of grace that can smack you out of your seat and spin you through the celestial spheres. Hoping for this sensation is of course what also keeps opera goers returning to the theater, so I leave it to the lucky individuals experiencing it to decide if their ecstasy is religious or other, and if the distinction really matters.

26 September 2007

See the Music

I spent two evenings last week at Mozart Dances, because I knew anything by Mark Morris would be worth seeing at least twice. Last year’s wonderful King Arthur, a parade of theatrical views of Britishness, was more of a staged opera; instead of having singers in the pit and dancers on stage (as in Dido and Aeneas, his other Purcell evening) both were visible and involved in the action, but the movements for the singers were inevitably simpler than they would have been for dancers. This time there was no opera or other vocal work as a basis; I can’t think of another of his evening-length works that is so free of story-lines, no matter how submerged or fragmentary (as in L’Allegro ed il Penseroso or Four Saints) they might be. The backdrops (different for each of the three dances and black-and-gray except for the third, which includes red; other colors are supplied by the lighting) are large curvy abstractions that look like details of Japanese brush paintings, greatly magnified. Mozart Dances, as the name implies, is more dance than narrative; the title is basic and descriptive and the three dances are named Eleven, Double, and Twenty-Seven after their music (Piano Concerto No. 11, Sonata in D major for Two Pianos, and Piano Concerto No. 27, and even those with eyes obstinately shut all evening would still have enjoyed Garrick Ohlsson and Yoko Nozaki at piano, and Jane Glover conducting the Berkeley Symphony). Morris’s ability to capture music in movement is always noted, but even after years of seeing his works it amazes me that the movements seem so inevitable yet so fresh. Mozart swirls and the dancers swirl; there’s a looping figure and the dancers make a looping figure, but it never seems like a reduction or a simple equation; in other words, it looks obvious but no one else could or has come up with it, which might be a good definition of genius. He has even succeeded in dancing about architecture (I’m thinking of the “Populous Cities” section of L’Allegro), which can only give heart to those who try to write about music.

You could always find narratives in Mozart Dances, if you were so inclined, of course. Anytime you have a dancer break away from a group, run into a group, move with a partner, or end up on stage alone, there’s an implied and fluid story. There are sudden jabbing gestures and moments when a group will stop and look upwards expectantly, or point at each other or gesture imploringly, and then the moment sinks away, but the cumulative moments help move the dance beyond the purely graceful and fluid, just as Mozart does with the music if we have ears to hear it. The first dance opens with alternate male and female dancers in a line; the men step forward, dance, and then exit the stage, leaving the entire rest of the dance to the women; this is the sort of subtle disjunction (I kept expecting a symmetrical return at the end or suchlike) that helps give a deeper ambiguity to the loveliness. Like Mozart, Morris is very witty, but I have to say I don’t find his work what you might call “ha-ha funny” the way some seem to; I’m sure everyone at any abstract dance has had to put up with the sort of audience member who giggles ostentatiously at the witty parts, lest the surrounding rows think she didn’t get it, but I think Mark Morris the Fabulous Personality can color views of what Mark Morris the choreographer is actually doing. I’ve seen him interviewed and he’s outrageous and hilarious and over-the-top in a kind of old-fashioned gay way (he also objected strenuously to having his work described as camp, which I thought was revealing), and audiences can bring that to their viewing: when he did Sylvia for the SF Ballet, some writer at the local paper made the astonishingly stupid remark that “everyone” was surprised that he treated the work seriously. I don’t know who “everyone” is, but anyone who’s paid attention to his work could have told them that Sylvia is exactly the sort of thing he would be serious about. Several years ago he did Dido and Aeneas here; the first evening was the season opener, and (I’m totally speculating here, I should point out) the party atmosphere and champagne (for the big donors and schmoozers, not for me) might have gotten to people, including Morris, because there were some giggles at his Dido. It was fascinating to return the next evening and see how he responded by making certain gestures more severe, by toning down the hair tossing, and otherwise connecting his Dido with the world of Greek tragic drama rather than drag revues; there was no giggling the second night. Even The Hard Nut, the most overtly comic work of his I’ve seen, is not a parody or deconstruction of the Nutcracker but its own thing, complete with moments of sob-inducing beauty (the pas de deux between the Nutcracker and Drosselmeier, for instance, which I have actually heard audiences giggle at, presumably because two men dancing together is by nature a campy joke). Making a separate, non-satirical thing of the Nutcracker is pretty difficult to do, based on the evidence of Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker!, which is fairly enjoyable but completely lacking in the psychological integrity or emotional depth of the Hard Nut. What brought all this up is the moment in Mozart Dances when one of the men runs down a double row of dancers and leaps into the arms of a lone man at the back of the stage. I guess there was a Looney-Tunes quality to it since it involved sudden running and jumping, but I also found it incredibly poignant, which is something your standard pratfall is not going to be. But then sometimes audience laughter makes me feel like a particularly ponderous German professor of metaphysics, straining his whole life to define the origin and purpose of wit in the weltschmerzy Weltanschauung.

Making it a mostly Mozart weekend, on Sunday evening I went to Il Re Pastore, performed by Philharmonia Baroque at First Congregational Church in Berkeley, an elegant brick rebuke to my former home, the Unit III dorms across the street. It’s like a New England Congregational Church, but higher and broader, which may be what gave the voices a strange reverberate halo in the first Act; I noticed the top-notch cast (Lisa Saffer, Heidi Grant Murphy, Michael Slattery, Iain Paton, and Margaret Lattimore) adjusted their voices to the space for Act Two. Philharmonia eschews surtitles, I assume because of expense and difficulty (since they perform in so many spaces, not all of them intended as concert halls), so you get the paper-turning, -crinkling, and -folding obbligato. I read the libretto beforehand and decided I only had enough energy to listen without reading along as well. The plot is fairly simple and involves an Emperor first causing and then solving romantic complications among two couple. Beautifully as everything was sung, I wish they had avoided the temptation to play the resolution for laughs; this type of story might be alien to us, but it’s not inherently ridiculous, and in these days when what used to be our country is lumbering imperially through the world, a bad enemy and a worse friend, it might not be such a strange idea to seek instruction on the clemency and justice appropriate to Emperors. But perhaps I’m just being the ponderous metaphysician again.

21 September 2007

sufficient unto the day. . . .

This has been, and I mean this quite literally, a crappy week, and delighted though I am to have a chance to use words like "mephitic" it is never a good thing when plumbers refer you to the hydro-jet guys who refer you back to the plumbers who start using phrases like "give you an estimate" and "city permits" and "you'll also need someone to take care of the concrete." There goes winging away many months of some entirely imaginary putative future pay, which is another reason to subscribe for a season in advance (because everything is theater after all, and vice versa): even I have been brought smack up against the cold hard brick wall of economic reality, but I have already bought (OK, charged) tickets that will carry me through dozens of evenings from September through June. Past extravagance can carry future rewards! Performing arts organizations may want to push this particular marketing angle, given the teetering state of the American economy.

18 September 2007

let me entertain you

Just like Tax Day or Christmas, which always show up punctually at the same time each year yet catch some of us unprepared, the beginning of the autumn theater season is barreling right on down and I keep having to remind myself that it’s coming. Well, maybe it’s more like Easter, which is a moveable feast and therefore provides an excuse for lack of preparation. There really isn’t any preparation necessary, of course, other than keeping an eye on the calendar and the tickets. I’m not going to blame San Francisco Performances, either, or even mention that they sent my tickets a month after they said they would (you’ve heard the expression “being inefficient doesn’t make you artistic”? It should be blazoned on the walls of every arts organization). Anyway, David Gockley was nice enough to send a double-disc CD set reminding me of what I paid for last February. This is the second year the Opera has sent out CDs, in place of the lavish booklets they used to send. Initially the CDs took me aback, but then I decided that since I listened to the CDs and rarely ever looked at the booklets (though I've kept them all and they keep popping up during the clean-up/organization thing I’m doing and I can’t decide what to do with them), the CDs were fine. This year’s CDs are better than last year’s, which were heavy on plot summaries and such insights as “Did you hear about Deborah Voigt and the little black dress?” (yes, way too many times, and I’m sure Ms. Voigt would agree) and “That Nathan Gunn sure is a looker!” (noted). I don’t really understand the persistence of operatic plot summaries in program books – sure, they were vital before surtitles, but now that anyone coming in cold can follow the action as if it were spoken theater, must we persist in draining any possible surprise out of the evening? There’s a little more cultural context in this year’s set; for example, the Samson discussion has a whole lot about fin-de-siecle femme fatale fantasies as a projection of male anxieties, which I suppose is true as far as it goes, which isn’t quite far enough – the funny thing about such discussions is that they’re meant to illustrate the speaker’s insight into and distance from a purely male perspective, but they rarely step outside of the male-centered perspective and make the obvious corollary point that such fantasies may have been enjoyed and promoted as empowering by women themselves. If you were a woman living under the restrictions of upper- and middle-class life in late-nineteenth century Europe, wouldn’t you enjoy seeing yourself as Salome or Dalilah? (Just as you can easily see why some poor Jewish boys in Depression America could come up with Superman.) It’s worth listening to both discs to find out why the Opera switched from the Sendak production of the Magic Flute (water damage – I really love water but have been more cognizant of its destructive side ever since the year in which first the rains caused my kitchen ceiling to collapse and then the water heater failed and flooded the basement) or – and this is quite exciting, I think – Nixon in China will finally be staged here in some unspecified future season. This latter tidbit comes up in a discussion of Madama Butterfly, of all things – even Gockley sounded bored at its return and went off on various tangents, such as the source of La Scala’s name. I’m not criticizing that – I’m easily distracted myself. (Though just when I figured I could skip Butterfly despite the undoubted appeal of Racette in the role, he reveals that instead of the inadequate Franco Farina we saw last time Pinkerton will be played by up-and-comer Brandon Jovanovich, whom I’ve heard good things about and would love to hear in person – like another Italian-founded organization, they just keep pulling you back in.) But it’s a little hard to know quite what to make of these CDs, ultimately, both because I’m not sure who exactly the audience is and because I’m not sure how much is Gockley trying to position himself with an allegedly disgruntled public. When leaving Titus Andronicus with Ms. S last spring, I expressed my surprise that people who cared enough about theater to have subscribed for years didn’t know the basic plots of what I would consider fairly standard works. I had to explain to her that I wasn’t criticizing those people – if anything, I was praising them (and why do people always think I’m being critical? I, who have a heart that is filled with love!); it was more that I didn’t understand how they could keep from knowing these things, at least osmotically. (Which is as good a place as any to point out that Gockley, in his discussion of Verdi’s Macbeth, seems to think that Verdi and Piave changed Shakespeare’s characterization of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth; actually, the whole criss-cross pattern in which the ambivalent Macbeth becomes more cold-blooded and cruel and his fierce wife descends into confusion and madness is faithful to the play.) The moment that really irritated me was in the discussion of Tannhauser, when we are treated to a smug conversation between Gockley and the director in which both agree that “no fedoras” will appear in the production. Throughout, Gockley has said all the correct things about Runnicles and Rosenberg, but I think he’s showing his claws here, since “fedoras” seem to have taken on a Magritte-bowler-hat level of significance in what passes for the minds of the Opera audience. It’s a coded way of assuring us that whatever we see will not ruffle us up too much, which shouldn’t really be the aim of a theater. I just can’t cite any really inappropriate Rosenberg-era productions (with the possible exception of the atrocious and entirely traditional Nozze di Figaro she inherited from Mansouri), which is not to say they were all incredibly successful, but I’m still puzzled at the depth of the hostility. Contemporary American culture generally is very reactionary and anti-intellectual (both symptoms of a fearful culture) and I hate to see an opera company join in, especially with such smugness. I hear the same tone when people talk about how “at last” the terrible reign of the twelve-toners has been overthrown and composers need no longer tremble with fear if they write “beautiful melodies that the audience wants to hear.” Setting aside possible music-world (or academic-music-world) politics, which don’t really concern me as an audience member, I have to say that in my decades of concert-going I haven’t exactly been drowning in the dodecaphonic, and I’m someone who seeks it out. It’s like those articles in which we’re assured that (again, at last) people can ignore the food police and finally resume eating butter, as if all those puffing Americans waddling to their cars had actually ever given anything up instead of just thinking they should. It’s a projection based on guilt. But why not avoid guilty feelings by being open to and trying a variety of things? Isn’t it clear by now that anyone announcing the one true music of the future is only trying to encourage him- or herself to find a path? Why should the audience buy into the thought that one particular style must win? Given that most of us, even inveterate concert-goers, experience music most often through recordings, why limit yourself? Why not try something new and then just sell it to Amoeba if you genuinely hate it (or simply don’t respond to it)? Speaking of recordings, what really springs out at me from both sets of CDs is that the opera has good-quality recordings of their past performances – I realize there are artist permissions and royalties and such things to hammer out, but if they’re not looking into this as a possible revenue stream then they’re crazy. I’d hit that. Well, as I said, I’m easily distracted – back to the new Opera season. It all looks pretty promising to me, at least at this point. I’m partial to The Rake’s Progress, of course, and I’m always happy to hear Wagner (with the possible exception of Meistersinger), and a world premiere is always good, but the one work that keeps recurring to me when I think of this season is Ariodante, with a kick-ass cast (Graham, Swenson, and Podles). But that’s not for many evenings yet.

13 September 2007

perche un di nella reggia, m'hai sorriso

With the recent death of Pavarotti following a year in which so many other great singers have died it is starting to seem as if an entire generation is passing into history, the generation that had just retired or was edging off stage around the time I started my concert-going. As a result some of these people I knew only by recordings or a rare live performance. Pavarotti I heard live only once. He gave a recital in Boston in the late 1980s and it was already considered something of an event for him to do so. The Globe always had thorough and high-quality arts coverage, so in addition to the usual review there were some articles before and after, most of them commenting on the bond he had with the audience. There was an older black woman who survived cancer and felt that his recordings helped her to do so; she met with him after the recital and from the Globe report it sounded like a warm and, if the expression makes sense, very human meeting. The recital itself was not the singer at his best; even by then there was some bloom off the voice, and he had his music in front of him, which I have never seen at any other vocal recital. But I was still glad for a chance to hear his remarkable voice live and feel his charismatic presence. It’s too bad that in later years he became more clownish; I wonder if the magnitude of his natural gift was more than he could really bear. I remember Ms. S and I back in Boston joking that there was something morbid about our annual ticket purchases; some of them were definitely “see them while you can” shows. I heard Anna Russell once, in what was apparently her farewell tour, though of course if Anna Russell had announced a farewell tour everyone would have assumed it was a diva joke. She went through just about every one of her classic routines and gave us three hours. I was with someone who said, “Wow! She’s like the Bruce Springsteen of whatever it is she does!” And when Horowitz came to town I knew there was just not going to be another chance, so I didn't care how pricey the tickets were. He was a tiny, frail-looking man; I can still hear the thundering octaves at the end of the first half and then a very long intermission so he could lie down backstage. At some point the last person to hear Horowitz live will also pass into history. I doubt I will be that person, but I’m glad I had at least a glimpse of these remarkable performers; it’s like seeing a sketch or fragment and knowing that it gains significance from its connection with an artist’s whole body of work.

12 September 2007

My tongue will tell the anger of my heart

The collection Shaw on Shakespeare includes a letter he wrote in 1888 to the Pall Mall Gazette suggesting that civilized people should boycott any revival of a brutal play like The Taming of the Shrew. Since he wrote it under a pseudonym I suspect he wasn’t completely serious. (I wonder if the Taming of the Shrew was in the back of his mind when he wrote Pygmalion, another comedy with a somewhat emotionally unsatisfying ending about an outsider woman being changed and toned down by a charismatic but emotionally brutal man.) It certainly gets revived more often than better plays, probably because you can sell it as a rough-house version of what used to be called The Battle of the Sexes, only classy because it’s written by the great Shakespeare. I saw the Cutting Ball’s version a few weeks ago. As usual with this company, the sets and lighting were done beautifully. As is not usual with them, the music was awful. We got blasted with hiphop all evening. Personal taste aside, hiphop (meant to signify the vibrant and contemporary, no matter how tired and conventional the sounds) has become a theatrical cliché that should be avoided. Evening after evening I sit there with the other middle-aged white people who make up most of the audience (along with the middle-class minorities who probably don’t care to be associated with hiphop culture) wondering what lie about ourselves and society we’re supposed to pretend to believe in while the music plays. Hiphop has replaced rock as the music that helps us play act that we’re rebels. Both are actually corporate-controlled manifestations of fake rebellion that help people pretend their lives are not as deeply conformist as they really are.

This production was contemporary but commedia-based. I have mixed feelings about commedia dell’arte. I’m as delighted as the next guy by Callot’s engravings, but a couple of years ago when an Italian troupe came to Berkeley and performed the Servant of Two Masters in traditional style I had to admit that, despite the romantic aesthetic appeal of seeing something that could have been viewed in the eighteenth century, I’m just not that entertained by seeing someone pretend to eat a fly, a commedia trope to which this Shrew paid tribute. (Also, I discovered that stuttering jokes are just as unfunny in Italian as in English.) Like Kabuki, commedia has been strip-mined for so many twentieth-century stagings that the novelty has long gone, but I’m more emotionally attuned to the stylized tragedies of Kabuki. Perhaps commedia is just too life-like for me. When I moved back to this area and worked temp for a while, every office I went to had its stock characters, just as surely as if they’d been named Truffaldino and Smeraldina: there was the snippy gay guy, the nice girl who kept trying to smooth over everyone’s feelings, the muttering schemer who was incompetent anyway, the female executive who thought she had to be tough-acting, the avuncular senior executive. . . . It’s fascinating how eager people are to turn themselves into stereotypes. At one long-ago job I stepped onto the elevator only to find it occupied by a pink-faced youngish man with bright suspenders over his huge gut, arrogantly smoking a comically large cigar (smoking in elevators was, if not exactly illegal then – I can’t remember for sure – certainly considered rude. I don’t really get cigars anyway – why not just carry a sign saying "I have a tiny dick"?). He could have modeled as a fat-cat capitalist caricature for New Masses. Perhaps if I knew these people better they would have broken from type; on the other hand, perhaps they would simply have exchanged one mask for another. If the thought of being reduced to standard characters isn’t depressing enough about commedia, then the antics are: basically, a lot of it comes down to vaudeville shtick – they literally use slapsticks – which I just don’t find that funny. I guess I respond more to verbal humor.

The first Shrew I saw was the famous commedia-style production Bill Ball did for ACT (it was shown on television and released on DVD a few years ago); my high school was taken twice. The first time, Petruchio was the surprisingly-muscular-for-the-1970s Marc Singer (the Beastmaster himself! and giving an excellent performance); the second time there was a different, much less buff guy, I think promoted up from Lucentio, who kept his shirt on, providing me an early lesson in how stagings are adjusted for individual actors. I watched the DVD recently and was pleased to see that the show held up: the pacing is fast and crisp and funny, and the whole cast is excellent. Unfortunately they have Kate give the wink to the audience at The Speech – you know the one I mean. This is wrong, wrong, wrong, because basically it turns Kate into Bianca. In the Cutting Ball production, Kate, played by the very funny Paige Rogers, gives the speech straight, but it sort of fell flat for me. Her Petruchio was David Sinaiko, and I have to say I’ve seen him do his “watch me be crazy” thing once too often. Rather than engaging with Kate he seemed to be forcing her to submit to his antic charms, such as they were. As a result the “taming” seemed a zany (yes, a commedia word) display by him rather than an interaction with Kate, as if Petruchio were one of those strenuously outrageous people who take over the room. That’s a power move, but actually a little more innocuous than the methods Petruchio really uses; those methods – deprivation of food and sleep, arbitrary and irrational orders, physical abuse – are classic brainwashing techniques, of the type currently being inflicted by our beloved government on the disappeared in dark and secret prisons. This is the sort of thing that suggests deeper possibilities in the play. To return to our Petruchio, he with his white hair looked too old (especially by contrast with the generally youthful cast) and not physically imposing. I’m not opposed to casting against type, but the usual Petruchio, with his slightly comic macho braggadocio, makes the connection with Kate physically understandable in a way that wasn’t happening here. I never thought I’d see a Shrew stolen by Grumio (Petruchio’s servant), but Avery Monsen was energetically hilarious. The other servants were mostly good too, particularly Jason Wong and Sam Gibbs. They performed their commedia antics with conviction if not always fluidity and crispness, as did the trio of very cute high school girls who danced hiphop routines between scenes.

Cutting Ball used the Christopher Sly induction, and had a Lady (and her girlfriend) rather than a Lord play the trick on Sly. In the Shrew portion, the Lady played Kate, her girlfriend played Bianca, and Sly played Petruchio, which was thematically suggestive if not logically clear, and nicely framed the ideas of stereotypes, roles, and identity worked out in the rest of the play. That brings us to The Speech, and how it should be handled. I’ve already pointed out that the easy evasion of the wink is false to Kate’s character. So do I think we’re supposed to believe what she says? I think we’re supposed to believe she believes it. Kate is an extremist – from Shrew to Stepford wife, but never in the average middle. She means what she says – she means every word. And that’s why it’s funny. It’s a joke about the “patriarchy” and how power actually works. The demure women, Bianca and Hortensio’s Widow, theoretically believe, and during courtship act according to, everything Kate says. But once they’re settled they think she’s a fool for not holding her own, and so much for allegations of omnipresent male power and how it works in the real world. Years ago in Boston, at some small theater whose name I’ve forgotten, I saw a Shrew that set the play in the world of commedia’s offspring, the vaudeville house. It made some brilliant points about comedy as a way of enforcing social conformity through ridicule of those who are different. At the beginning Kate was a raucous baggy-pants comic with a seltzer bottle, like most of the men. By the end she had been transformed into a gauzy pink soubrette like the other women, and she spoke her final speech in a mincing, ghastly tone while posing suggestively for the male spectators. Her transformation was, seriously, one of the most deeply horrifying and disturbing things I’ve ever seen. And I barely remember her Petruchio – another clown? A master of ceremonies? Just another performer fitting into his assigned slot?

05 September 2007

O Absalom, my Absalom!

The trip to Camille at the Silent Film Festival was such a big success that I returned to the Castro Theater a week later, this time for a different silent film at a different festival: His People from 1925, presented by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival with a live jazz sextet performing Paul Shapiro’s rousing and effective new score (I read an interview beforehand in the Chronicle in which the writer didn’t seem to understand that “silent” films were always accompanied by music – I thought everyone knew this, or is that just one of the many erroneous assumptions I make about what I consider general knowledge?). Somewhat surprisingly the audience was even more receptive and open to silent film style than the Silent Film Festival audience had been. You never can be sure how people will approach silent movies. In those sad days long-ago before DVDs, and even before VHS, I finally had a chance to see a movie I’d wanted to see for years, Griffith’s Way Down East (Gish on the ice flow!) but I went in with some trepidation since it was showing at the Harvard Center for the Visual Arts and I was figuring the likely viewers would consider themselves too sophisticated (see my previous entry for my opinion of sophistication in audiences) for what is basically a creaky melodrama. On the contrary, they were ideal. When the man who done her wrong suggests to Gish that she might want to move out of the neighborhood, she gives him an cold look and (via the intertitle) suggests that perhaps he should get out of town, and the audience erupted in cheers. Even the bumpkin comedy was warmly received. You should never underestimate the power of even the most ancient theatrical tricks. His People is somewhat similar to Way Down East in that it is also a melodrama, this time about the Cominskeys, a family of immigrant Jews in New York City, and in beloved Biblical and folkloric style there is a good son and a bad son. The elder boy Morris becomes a lawyer (he’s bookish, so the father favors him) and then tells his wealthy girlfriend’s family that he’s an orphan because he’s ashamed of his Old Country parents, a pose he maintains even when his sick father shows up at the fiancée’s house. The younger boy, streetwise Sammy, is a stand-up guy who provides the money for his brother’s school and his father’s medical bills by boxing professionally. When his father finds out that “Kid Rooney” is not some Irish brawler but his younger son, he is so shamed at his “box fighting” that he throws him out of the tenement. Nonetheless Sammy, his mother’s favorite, continues to support his parents and even stands in for Morris when he refuses to come to what might be his father’s death bed, like Jacob over Esau only motivated by love rather than trickery. Eventually Sammy drags Morris back home and forces him to apologize, to the cheers of the audience, which was so into the action that they even were harsh towards the fiancée, who actually has no knowledge of the deception and is portrayed sympathetically, with some hints that she’s getting a little old not to be married. The plot machinery of melodrama does its business but it’s always the actors who lift it up and make it memorable. In this case Sammy was particularly charming and appealing, managing to withstand even the constant smiling required of early leading men. He’s played by George Lewis, and after seeing this film I was surprised he didn’t become a better known star, but a quick trip to IMDB reveals that he was actually born in Mexico, so perhaps like Novarro he had an accent that handicapped him in Hollywood once sound came in. That might explain why most of his later credits are Zorro-related. But who knows the vagaries that fall on any career, let alone an actor’s. Best of all was Rudolph Schildkraut as the father; one of the film’s subtler touches was the speed with which he forgives his favorite Morris and the great unctuous condescension with which he lets generous-hearted Sammy back into the family. Some of the Festival publicity materials seemed surprised that the boxer was the good kid, but boxer over lawyer is not too unusual in a populist medium. I wish they had given us more background on the movie (there’s not a whole lot on IMDB either) –some of it, especially the opening scene among street peddlers, looked as if it was actually filmed on the Lower East Side, and the film was definitely made for a Jewish audience and assumed familiarity with Sabbath candle-lighting and other rituals, which made it strange that one intertitle helpfully explained that “ ‘Shabas’ is the Jewish word for Sabbath” which got a big laugh from the audience, which already knew. There is one Irish family in the neighborhood; the father doesn’t seem to be around and the mother is of course a big, good-natured washerwoman who frequently stands with her arms akimbo. She has a daughter named Mary (again of course), and one peddler informs us early on that “she’s so sweet you wouldn’t know she was an Irisher!” She and Sammy the boxer are in love, but there’s no Abie’s Irish Rose angle. There’s a charming melting pot moment when the Irish mother sends Mary over to the Cominsky place to find out how to prepare gefilte fish, since Father O’Malley is showing up for dinner on Friday (speaking of familiar rituals, this was back in “fish on Friday” times). The Jewish Film Festival featured Jewish boxers this year, and once there were many of them (read all about it in Allen Bodner’s When Boxing Was a Jewish Sport), but that was back when boxing was more mainstream and immigrant Jews weren’t. Like Sammy, some of them fought under Irish pseudonyms, though that seems like a lateral move for the time. In these days when athletic garb is street apparel it’s strange to see the fighters train by running through the snow in suits and dress shoes, though in the gym they wear trunks and tanks and the boxing moves are the same. I was hoping for a few more boxing scenes, but that’s not really the focus of the movie except for the big battle at the end (with very effective tympani accompaniment). Unfortunately the director shot the big fight with a faster camera speed to hop up the action, just the way TV shows today think people walking into a house or out to the car will be more exciting if it happens at high speed with rock soundtrack added, though regular boxing should be exciting enough. None of these tricks are new; I remember hearing about the MTV quick cuts back in the 80s and thinking, “What’s the big deal? Hasn’t everybody already seen all that in the films of Abel Gance?”

04 September 2007


I normally avoid movie theaters, finding a big-screen TV and Netflix preferable to the ordeal that movie-going has become, but I was given passes to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (mille grazie to J and CF) so I headed on over to the Castro Theater, which is smaller than I thought it would be but just as bizarrely and extravagantly ornamented as I had hoped, to see Nazimova in Camille. The sets and costumes are by Natacha Rambova and are even more strikingly stylized than the notorious ones she did for Nazimova’s Salome, which were based on Aubrey Beardsley; the Deco fabulosity on view here (the time is updated to the 1920s) was all her own. Anything extravagant or stylized makes some people nervous, and the speakers introducing the film felt it necessary to caution us about what we were going to see. There were still some condescending chuckles from the audience, but that’s a hazard of seeing silent films, even at a Silent Film Festival. I don’t really understand this: acting styles were different in the early part of the twentieth century (more rhetorical, grander, more theatrical, if you will, than cinematic) and it doesn’t take too much expertise to see who is giving a good performance in that style and who is not. If you’ve grown up seeing Raphael Madonnas, would you burst out laughing at your first Byzantine icon? You might find it hard to adjust at first, but it’s just a different means of representation with its own standards. But people think it’s a sign of sophistication to laugh at silent movies. I don’t think much of “sophistication” for audiences anyway: the problem with sophistication is that it’s a series of accepted attitudes, and the need to stay current with what is considered sophisticated can keep you from seeing and feeling what is happening right in front of you. Nazimova does have an explosion of hair and bee-stung lips (not too odd for a courtesan), but she is also a great actress – just observe the regretful little shake back into her life she gives herself as she leaves her uncorrupted friend from the early days and goes back to her silly party. Let’s have some respect for the woman who studied with Stanislavsky and when in America not only insisted on performing Ibsen but made him big box office. Her Armand was Rudolph Valentino, just as Four Horsemen was making him a star, looking appropriately dreamy and sad. Nazimova’s Camille dies alone, imagining Armand, clutching the volume of Manon Lescaut he gave her. In my Camille mood I watched the Garbo version a week or so later and Robert Taylor’s Armand gives his Camille the same gift, one that I have to say seems remarkably tactless under the circumstances. I had forgotten what a magnificent actress Garbo is; her face is a poem and her eyes are epics and those should be enough, but she gives us more. It’s even worth putting up with the egregiously awful Lionel Barrymore (as Armand’s father) to watch her. In some ways this 1936 version is farther from our tastes than the 1921 film; I can picture a contemporary woman wearing Nazimova’s costumes, but not the absurd rounds of fluff that Adrian inflicted on Garbo (her pastoral costumes, featuring hoop skirts and yards of white lace, are particularly ridiculous, especially for a woman who was supposedly raised in the country with the cows and chickens). Robert Taylor also looks appropriately dreamy and sad and then jealous, but it’s all about Garbo. The only actor to come close, despite the best efforts of Laura Hope Crews as the aptly named Prudence, Camille’s greedy realpolitik procurer, is Henry Daniell as Baron de Varville. He’s not exactly likeable, but you respect his coldness and his strength. There’s a scene in which Camille gets him to pay her debts, and he knows it’s so she can leave him and go to the country with Armand, and he slaps her. It’s a very emotionally complex moment, and an impossible one in the movies these days, when hitting a woman signifies ultimate villainy just as much as did the twirling moustache of melodrama. (Not that I’m advocating slapping women, or anyone else, but the idea that you never hit a woman is based on the notion that all women are, by nature, smaller and weaker than all men; it’s a version of “pick on someone your own size.” Since women in movies these days, even period pieces, are all experts with sword and fist, it seems an odd relic that they’re supposed to be untouchable. I saw one movie in which the bad guy slapped the heroine and we were clearly meant to think this was the absolute worst, but since she had just cornered him with her skilled fencing, why wouldn’t or shouldn’t he fight back? There seems a basic confusion there.) And later on de Varville and Armand fight a duel, and I knew that if the movie were made these days the Baron’s aristocratic bravery would be stripped from him and he would have to be an abject coward on top of everything else. For all the post-Code censorship of movies, they were realistic about class and economics in a way that contemporary movies are not. This is not like the Raphael Madonna versus the Byzantine icon, because those are equally valuable means of representation and I’m talking about a willingness to face up to the hardness of life versus some deluded fantasy of entitlement. Somewhere after the tragic "Women’s Picture" we slipped into the smug self-delusion of the Chick Flick, and it’s not really to the credit of our ability to take in some of life’s complexity. The whole world and style of Camille may be too alien for us anyway unless preserved in the music of Verdi (somewhere Robertson Davies points out that nineteenth-century theatrical styles can still be seen, but only on the opera and ballet stages). Once I did see Camille performed live - when I was at Berkeley, Charles Ludlam played the famous courtesan in his Ridiculous Theater Company production, and that should tip you off that the play was so far out of the mainstream it was avant-garde. The performance was celebrated, and I sort of wish now that I had not left at intermission, which I have only done about four times in my life. I keep feeling I must have missed something. But it just seemed like a fat man in a dress, and not a particularly memorable one (man or dress) either. It wasn't done as camp extravaganza, but it wasn't quite done straight (pardon the expression) either. Maybe I'd have a different reaction now. Maybe not. Either way, I'm not going to have another chance, since that world too has gone into the theater scrapbooks.