muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Nuphy called Don Quichotte "the season's weakest link" and perhaps that's what it will turn out to be. After all, it was by all accounts an impressive Lucia and I can personally attest that we had a solid Rheingold. I'd take a mediocre version of either of those over a top-rate Massenet most days and I'm so dang excited about finally seeing Les Troyens in a week that I'm giving it a gentleman's B no matter what. But if it is the weakest, then that will be testimony to what a strong season we'll have had.

Lyric's staging is a happy family. The main weakness is the opera itself, primarily the score: barely two hours of music and only one standout melody. I was implicitly warned about how bored Nuphs expected to be at dinner when I warned him against a second margarita with, "You don't want to fall asleep during the first act," to which he responded, "Oh yes I do!" But he didn't after all. At intermission, he confessed that part of the difficulty the previous time was the lack of supertitles, which is a significant issue with an opera which relies as much on its text as this one does.

(Speaking of text, there were title cards before each act featuring English translations of quotes from Cervantes' great work. Which is a lovely idea, except some dildo lazily laid them out in Papyrus. Are you fucking kidding me?)

Where was I? Oh, right--weak score, good libretto. Fittingly, we had solid but not outstanding singers with terrific diction. Clémentine Margaine, our Dulcinée, is actually French so she had better be en pointe, but our Italian male leads sounded kosher, too. They were also perfectly cast, Furlanetto with the stick legs and a slightly shaky past-prime timbre that made for a convincing Quichotte and Alaimo with natural bulk and comic energy. Together they made the final act more touching than I was prepared for from such a trifling treatment of a weighty work. Margaine had the right amount of languor, both physically and vocally, and the supporting case managed to uphold a standard without anyone standing out.

The other thing which kept Nuphy awake was the quality of the production. Very traditional, but it had good flow. (Contrast it to Rheingold, where the stage was too busy to the point of losing the focus at times.) Visually, the most striking sequence was during the windmill-tilting scene, where moving props are overlaid with projections which multiply until you begin to feel the madness gripping Quichotte before he charges. (Unfortunately, on the weakest aspect of the set design: a static wooden horse on rollers.)

As expected given the period and subject, there's a lot of marching the chorus on and off to satisfy the requirements of the score. I'm always looking for ways to inject this with some naturalism, but I confess there's not much the stage director can do in this case with as few measures as Massenet gives him. A bit more in the way of instrumental interludes between arias and you'd have a shot at something more naturalistic, but instead it's all about efficiently exiting a hundred or so choristers. The dance numbers--such as they are--suffer from a lack of real choreography and there's a crowd scene where the clapping is so sloppy that I was gripping Nuphy's knee in agony for it to be over. (Hopefully that's an opening-night problem that it's still possible to iron out.)

So a happy family, but not a jubilant one. An a welcomely compact one: we were out by 10 p.m., in plenty of time to catch the express bus home for a change. Our UofC seat mate was trying to flog a half-baked idea about the opera's relationship to early modernity that none of us was buying, but we all felt good-natured enough to hear him out. If I weren't such a lightweight, it would've been a great opportunity for nightcap; instead I had to make sure I got my mood-enhancer in early.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Opera season technically opened for us last weekend, but it was only Lucia and Nuphy wasn't going to miss a major playoff game just for that and I wasn't going to go to it without him so we found a good friend (Diego) to pass our tickets on to. I would've been more hesitant about agreeing to this if it weren't for the fact that I knew we'd catch Rheingold last night come hell or high water or even the Cubs clinching the NLCS.

I told Nuphy I simply couldn't face the prospect of yet another Thai meal so he generously treated me to dinner at Rivers beforehand. They seem to have upped their game somewhat, but still made some odd missteps. Like making their brussel sprout salad more enormous than all but the most ardent fans of brussel sprouts could stomach. Or serving all their desserts with "seasonal berries"--including the pumpkin tart. As you'd expect, even with too much panko Nuphy's scallops were better than my whitefish. Service was terrific. This may go down as the first time I've ever told a server not to fill my water glass during a meal. (We had 2½ intermission-free hours ahead and were strictly controlling our fluid intake.)

Nuphy wisely told me in advance about our temporary displacement--our regular seats had been sold to others (probably at a premium) so we were three rows back--so that I was able to avoid the upset of the Awful Russian Lady across the aisle. The usher had to gently coax her to move back, prompting outraged rants about having occupied the same seats for 20 years and яда яда яда. Wagner brings out the serious operagoers, so no leaners or whisperers or phone-users in front of us, making our interim seats were hardly worse than our usual ones.

Now, to the production. It was a completely different direction from the minimalist stagings I'm used to. As usual when you switch it up, some things worked and some things didn't. I think maybe the point of all the visible stage machinery (there were stagehands in view almost constantly) was to reinforce the notion of unseen fate driving the events, but that may be a reach. In any case, this was more effectively conveyed simply by making use of the Norns, who were the first characters on view. I found having them appear with mop and pail to clean up after the bloody mutilation of Alberich odd, but Nuphy argued that their mending the fabric of destiny is a kind of housekeeping. We both loved the symbolism having them on the roof of Erda's box when she rose up out of the ground.

Those boxes though...they were used sometimes to great effect and sometimes for pure spectacle. Like when Loge and Wotan visit Nibelheim, a couple of them pop up two or three times for no real reason. The same goes for the huge pieces of stage machinery representing the Æsir and Jötnar. At one point, Fasolt's mighty face was turned stage left whereas the singer inside faced stage right, making it confusing where the character's attention was really directed. The platforms for him and Fafner were also located very high above the stage which inhibited their ability to project to the balcony. This was painfully noticeable at their entrance, where their voices sound thin contrasted to the swelling orchestra and the booming bass of Eric Owens as Wotan.

And they aren't thin voices--particularly Tobias Kehrer as Fafner, as was demonstrated later when they were allowed to descend or at least come far enough downstage to mitigate the dampening effect. There weren't any weak voices in the whole cast, though the particular standouts were newcomer Samuel Youn as Alberich and the scene-stealing Štefan Margita as Loge. Or weak actors. I thought some of the clowning was a bit much--I can't remember the last time I heard this much laughter at Wagner--but some of the choices Nuphy found weird (like giving Freya a bit of Stockholm syndrome during her captivity in Riesenheim) I found interesting.

Davis conducted so well I forgot it was Davis. He's good at Wagner provided he doesn't go too slowly and, if anything, he went too far the other way. (Nuphy opined that his take on the Creation was roughly double time compared to Solti's.) The orchestra got an enthusiastic round of applause at the end, so my impression that they played very well seems substantiated. The whole atmosphere--despite anxieties about curtain--was very festive. Any misgivings I had about resubscribing have been allayed.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
At some point in my reading of Borstal Boy, I attempted to compare it to my memories of the 2002 film adaptation and come to the realisation that I had none. I mean, I dredged up a few vague images and I remember something about a stage play, but I couldn't recall the plot. Or the character arc. Or the characters. Or the actors who played them. So I was pleased to find out from rereading my original entry that I apparently rather enjoyed it. That was over five years ago now, which is about twice as long ago as what it had become compressed to in my mind, so maybe I shouldn't fault myself for forgetting so much.

In retrospect, the movie was spot on in having the central character move away from radicalism rather than toward it. Ebert faulted this in his review, but unfairly so, since that's very much the impression Behan leaves you with. Yes, his young self is defiant until the end, but there's absolutely no indication in the closing chapter that this is the same man who would attempt to assassinate two gardaithe within a year of being released. I also faulted the compression in the film, but Behan sums up his last two years in six pages after having spent 230 on his first year in borstal and 130 on a few months imprisonment before that.

Dramatically, the biggest change is to have the film build up to a violent climax when it's the opposite with the book: the most vicious violence occurs in the first hundred pages whereas the last hundred have none at all. In my review of the film, I mentioned "short shrift" being given to the straight romantic subplot, but that's quite understandable considering that the object is a character that barely merits a walk-on in the book. The homosexuality is, as expected, dealt with rather more cagily in print, and it's hard to tell how much this reflects Behan's own youthful naïveté and how much a grown man's prudence.

It's a smashing read. Behan has a fantastic ear for dialogue and true way with words--poetical and very Oirish without getting too aye-and-begorra. For once an Irish novel with a fair bit of the Irish language in it and all of it correct (ignoring the lack of accents, for which doubtless blame the printer). I am now a treasure trove of mid-20th-century English prison slang, such as "judy", "snout", and "graft china". Wonder when that might come in handy.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
I feel remiss for not writing full reviews for the couple of recent opera performances I saw. I was under the weather both times, but I wish I could've been sicker for The merry widow than for Wozzeck rather than the other way around, since obviously a serious drama about the exploitation of the proletariat requires just a bit more concentration than a romcom.

First the Lehár. I'm amazed I didn't fall asleep during the first half. Not because it was exceptionally boring but because I almost always do during the first act of a romantic opera. In fact it was only moderately boring. Fleming still has a good voice, if nothing as enchanting as it was during her peak, but I don't recall her being so wooden as an actress. There seemed to be no modulation in her speaking voice at all. You'd think it would sound totally changed after that moment in Act 2 where she realises Danilo loves her after all but you would be wrong.

Fortunately Hampson takes up all that slack and then some. He's a bit long in the tooth, too, but that works rather well given how the plot is all about second chances. Frankly, any non-musical scene without either him or local talent Jeff Dumas--who absolutely kills as Njegus, the comic relief--is a waste of time. I ranted to Nuphy about how pedestrian the direction was, reminiscent of a high-school production. The scene where Fleming sings "Vilja", for instance, is completely static. Sure, the focus should be on the singer, but you've got the entire chorus on stage. You can't think of any stage business to give them that would reflect or comment on the action in some way? Get back to theatre school. Or, you know, stop cutting corners, Lyric, and hire a director and a choreographer instead of making the latter do both jobs.

Susan Stroman has a background in Broadway musicals and it really pays off during the big numbers. The opening scene at Maxim's, for instance, is a show-stopper, and not just on account of the grisettes. The set change is simultaneous with the dancing, so while the ladies are pirouetting walls are swooping in and out and decoration is dropping from the ceiling. And such decoration! Maxim's was gorgeous, and the other sets were much enhanced by detailed lighted cityscapes of Paris in the background.

Speaking of Paris, our performance took place the day after the assault, so we were all asked to stand for a performance of the "Marseillaise". I reacted about how you'd expect I'd react if asked to sing the "Star Spangled Banner" the day after the Boston Massacre, which is to say with resignation and discomfort. It just reinforced for me how thoroughly and successfully the situation is being exploited by rightist elements but at home and abroad.

One more reason why it would've been infinitely preferable to have had Wozzeck then rather than a week earlier. It's possible you could miss the anti-military and anti-nationalist message of Berg's masterpiece, but you'd have to be pretty thick indeed. Unfortunately its impact was blunted someone by Davis' rushed conducting, which flattened the high points of the score. Tomasz Konieczny is perfectly cast as the title character and, as good as he and Denoke were, they would've been even more shattering with better musical direction.

I didn't see where Nuphy was coming from with his criticisms that the sets weren't realistic enough. Yes, there's some stylisation (notably in the square which marks the centre of the settlement), but there are also ingeniously detailed contraptions in most every scene reinforcing the theme of mechanicisation of society and stark lighting emphasising the bleakness of existence for those bearing all the burden of industrialisation while accruing few of the benefits.

I thought it was particularly good how the handled the many scene changes--fourteen of them in the space of 90 minutes! Instead of scrims, they used low rods hung with heavy curtains which could nonetheless be pulled back with alacrity by invisible runners. I found it added to the edginess inherent in the music and plot; Nuphy just found it annoying.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
So if you want to know where the inspiration for the garish pastels in the costumes of Barbara Gaines' production came from, look no further than here:

I have one of my seat partners, a music prof at UofC, to thank for this observation. He also remarked that this was "the Mozart who gives rise to Rossini, not the Mozart who rise birth to Wagner". That is, the staging was reaching back into the commedia dell'arte tradition of physical comedy rather than looking forward to the 19th-century of grand opera. Which is a fine thing to do, but to pull it off (as your man also pointed out) you need a cast of fine comedians as well as fine singers. And--with the prominent exception of Luca Pisaroni as the Count--that's something we didn't have.

This was most noticeable with the character whose name is in the title, Figaro. Adam Plachetka's voice a bit small for the vast interior of the Lyric, leading him to get drowned out by the orchestra a couple of times. He's got the size to bumble about, but he needed to work on timing. Everybody did, which leads one to hope that the final performance will be much more assured than this, only the second in the run. From the sound of it, guest conductor Henrik Nánási will need that much time to get a handle on the orchestra, which wasn't as together as it should've been. Add in some turgid sections and you've got yourself quite a draggy first act.

But things picked up noticeably in the second, thanks in no small part to Pisaroni. Rachel Frenkel acquitted herself nicely with "Voi che sapete", but whether through her stiffness or poor direction, that number didn't come off nearly as well as it could've. (As Cherubino sings, the Countess keeps trying to distract him with playful caresses and teasing gestures. But he ignores her singlemindedly--despite the fact that only minutes before he was literally throwing himself around with distress at not being able to see her!) Gaines' decision to set all of the action on the tremendous bed of the lady of the manor works very well in this scene, but makes less sense later when a gardener(!) marches in and stomps all over it, followed by all and sundry.

I must say, the production grew on me. At first, the huge blonde wood-textured swoop making up the centre of the stage looked to me like nothing so much as a moulded Scandinavian console from the 60s (a resemblance only heightened when a panel in it slides away bizarrely to reveal the peasant chorus). In the next seen, it acquires a touch of transparency and comes to resemblance an elabourate valence instead. The garden in Act Four is almost completely abstract, just sculptures and koi pond, but the lighting makes it magical.

The singers grew on me, too. At first I thought Amanda Majeski's tall willowy Countess was too poorly matched to Christiane Karg's Susanna for their substitution to make sense even in a dimly-lit space, but clever costuming and hair convinced me. Whatever my friends might think, Keith Jameson's Basilio was way too Wilberforce Humphries for my taste and I was glad I didn't have to suffer through his late aria, which ended up on the cutting-room floor alongside Marcellina's. Again, Katharine Goeldner's voice grated less on me then than it did in Act One, but I still wasn't looking forward to the prospect of a deep drink of it.

So, yeah, iron out the problems of timing etc. in both the stage action and the music and you'll have one terrifically fun romp here. (When all's said and done, it's the most indestructible of Da Ponte's libretti.) It's not enough for me to have another look in a couple weeks, but I'd like to hear from those who do.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
I meant to use the weekend to catch up on some reading but I caught up more on films instead. For various reasons, there were three at the house, but I don't want to watch Winter's Bone until it's cold, so I sent it back. That left a Chinese film and a French-Canadian one, and I watched them in that order.

It's been so long since I dropped 桃姐 (English: A Simple Life) into my queue that I forgot it was a Hong Kong film. It took me until the end of the credits to figure out that they were speaking in Cantonese and even longer than that to figure out that this was an Andy Lau film. When I discovered Hong Kong film, Andy Lau was a god--or more precisely, a Heavenly King. We called him "Andy 'Not In The Face!' Lau" because his Cantopop heartthrob status meant that, even during the most vicious fight scenes, no one took at swing at his head. He wasn't as pretty as Leslie Wong, but then no one was, not even the starlets they paired him with. And he grew into his acting roles from a slightly stiff stand-and-model start.

Which is good, because the film rests on his shoulders as much as it does Deanie Ip. She's the focus character, an orphaned maid who's been with the same family her entire life. He was the last child she was allowed to spoil before the bulk of the family packed up and moved to California. Now middle-aged and still unmarried, he's the only one left for her to take care of in the cozy Kowloon apartment they share when he's not jetting away to Beijing or wherever on movie business.

Speaking of which, there's an early scene where he's in a contentious meeting with three other guys. Through the dialogue, it's revealed that one of them is a film director, another is an action director, and a third--the only Mandarin-speaker--is a financial backer of some sort. When the director pitches a fit and stalks off, someone calls after him, "Director Tsui!" It wasn't until that moment that I placed him as legendary director of the OUATIC series Tsui Hark. Then I took another look at the action director and placed him as fight choreographer and comic actor Sammo Hung.

That cosiness is one of the things I enjoyed about the Hong Kong cinema of the 90s. After all, the only reason I know what Tsui Hark looks like is because of his cameo in 雙龍會 (Twin Dragons), which also includes walk-ons from Ringo Lam and John Woo. And there's a callback to the in-jokes of that film in the very next scene, where it turns out that the argument in the conference room was all staged to extort more funds and Tsui compliments Lau's character by telling him, "You should've been an actor!"

So I was already in a nostalgic frame of mind, which made the film's themes of loss and forgetfulness all the more poignant. (Andy Lau hasn't had a chart-topping hit in more than fifteen years; after hears of chronic depression, Leslie Cheung killed himself in 2003.) Ip (the "Miss Peach" of the title) suffers a debilitating stroke and decides she wants to move into an nursing home before she becomes a burden to anyone. But Lau, left without any family in Hong Kong, becomes as devoted to her as any son. It's frankly sentimental, but that's not all bad, because (apart from discordant elements which recall some of the broader HK comedies) it works.

By contrast, I felt much less connected to the characters in Le Déclin de l'empire américain. They're all very full of themselves, in the way that only academics can be (The fact that they're all speaking French only makes it worse) and most are cheats or liars of one sort or another, even if they're only really lying to themselves. The drama turns on an incident of infidelity disclosed out of casual spite and at times the stereotyping (e.g. the nurturing homosexual addicted to dangerous sex) becomes a bit hard to take.

On the other hand, some of my best friends are intellectuals who are full of themselves and, at its best, Déclin reminds me of listening to their banter. At other times, it feels like a Canadian French Big Chill. (That's not a compliment.) Perversely, giving the viewing order, this functioned as a prequel to Les Invasions barbares for me, which probably made me less sympathetic going in. I'm not surprised that both films made the list of top Canadian films of all time, and I'm equally unsurprised that both have seen their position slip with time, to the point of dropping off altogether in the current version.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Poor [ profile] monshu! Despite how tired I was after entertaining his family Tuesday night, I had every intention of joining up with them again the next evening in Wicker Park for fancy vegan food. Then Wicker Park became Norwood Park and the restaurant became dowdy old Amitabul, which I have strongly meh impressions of from the days when it was still located on Southport. Even at rush hour, the RTA trip planner couldn't find a route which took less than 65 minutes and the taxi fare estimator put the cost around $36. I was so eager not to disappoint anyone that I even checked Uber (which I consider the pimple on Satan's glans of transport companies), but then I came to my senses and begged off.

Of course, by then it was too late for forging alternative plans, so I decided instead to grab some pie to heat up at home while I cleared a title off my NetFlix queue. I try to screen them well, so it's a rare day indeed when I find one so unwatchable that I seriously consider giving up a half hour in, so either I was in a far worse mood than I thought I was or No Way To Treat A Lady is just a special kind of awful. George Segal isn't entirely charmless, but neither is there much apparent reason for Lee Remick to pursue him so single-mindedly. The real puzzle, however, is why too-clever-by-half serial killer Rod Steiger sees him as a worthy opponent for a game of cat-and-mouse when it's basically dumb luck that bears him along. I love Rod Steiger--clearly I must to stick with him as he eats every piece of scenery within arm's length. But he doesn't have enough charisma to save this shambles of a script. (Not surprised Goldman didn't put his name to it.)

But of all this, what had my hand hovering over the remote was the atrocious performance of Eileen Heckart as the most embarrassing caricature of a Jewish mother this side of the Borscht Belt. (In retrospect, the smart thing to do would've been to put on closed captioning and watch her scenes muted.) The whole thing is such a mess of stereotypes (ethnic and otherwise), from Irish cops and priests to mouthy dames and flaming queens, but none of it prepares you from an amazingly ill-conceived confrontation between Segal and a midget confessing to the crimes which is played for laughs only there aren't any--not even from sheer nervous confusion.

Still, I didn't regret my choice. I regretted it even less when the Old Man stumbled in at 11 p.m. with a tale of woe of waiting nearly two hours in the unseasonable coolness to catch a cab back from the burbs. The whole business wore him out to the point where he spent most of the next day sleeping. I'll make it up to him tomorrow by riding the rails out to the Blue Line terminus and plunging into the maelstrom of Comic-Com with him. Then it's a day of recovery before the clean-up day for the out-of-towners.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Blondie seems to think that I don't like musicals. Y'all know that's not true. I don't like most musicals. And I don't like seeing musicals presented on an opera stage, because it only invites invidious comparisons. If I'm watching a musical on DVD, I'm comparing the soundtrack to that of other movies I've seen and thinking, "There are some pretty good songs here." If I watch it at the Lyric, I'm comparing it to scores of great operas I've seen there and thinking, "This sounds pretty weak."

Given that handicap, Carousel actually did really well on the musical axis. Some reviews have called it the "most operatic" of musicals (or at least of classical musicals or Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals) and it's impressive how durchcomponiert it is in places. There are still lots of "numbers", but the songs don't feel shoehorned in they way they often can. Instead, the dialogue feels carefully inserted between the musical bits, which are the meat of the matter.

But, Jesus God, the characterisation. I know all about the past being a foreign country. Still, there's only so much I can do to keep my second-wave feminist sensibilities in check during an extended scene of sexual assault played for laughs (at the expense of the naïve soubrette, natch). And even that was peanuts to the constant domestic abuse apologetics culminating in the equation of striking a young girl with giving her a kiss. Ew, ew, ew.

Nuphy and I almost got into a fight over it afterwards. He grew up with Carousel, the songs are woven into the fabric of his childhood, and he kept urging me to take the ugly bits "in context". I argued that that was exactly what I was doing: the context was one of normalising sexual abuse. From his protests, I feel like he didn't understand what that really means. Yes, it's all meant to be enjoyed as light entertainment. That's exactly what makes it so awful. We're so comfortable with exploitation and abuse of women we're going to do a cute little dance number about it. (Maybe follow that up with an uptempo number about darkies knowing their place? Oh, wait, no, different musical.)

Even despite that, I found the show genuinely affecting. I teased Nuphs about his watery eyes afterwards, all the while hoping he didn't notice the tear tracks on my own cheeks. At some point during "You'll Never Walk Alone" I began thinking of that grim future where I won't ever again have [ profile] monshu to come home to and then it was all over. Is this how I'm going to be from now on? How tedious.

The production was terrific. Great sets, solid choreography. The Second Act interlude feels endless though. A couple in front of me got up to leave right as it finished and I was like, Where you going? You just made it through the worst part! The only thing that really bothered me (beyond, you know, the rampant sexism) was the lighting. For some reason, most of the action takes place around sunset regardless of whether that makes any sense. It's very pretty to have those pinkish hues glimmering on the scrims, but it doesn't lend any coherence to the action at all.

We also came very close to missing curtain for only the second time in my history with the Lyric. Somehow both Blondie and Nuphy managed to look right at the tickets and not see that the show started at 1:30. The former and I arrived at the theatre about 1:24 expecting to meet Nuphy there only to find out from a phone call that he was relaxing across the street. I expect that kind of ditziness from Blondie, coming from Mr Semper Clamo it's a surprise. I made it to my seat just as the lights were dimmed; they managed to slip in during the overture and moved up after the first intermission.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
My NetFlix discs arrived with blinding speed. Like if I hadn't been out all yesterday evening (and into the night) gallivanting about, I would've been able to watch the first episode of Jack Taylor. I'm glad I chose to gallivant, because it was shite. Almost none of the changes from the book made any sense to me. Like of course you knew the main character would be less of an asshole than he is in the novels, but what's with making the rocker chick singer into a garda...who's a blues singer on the side? Really? And was there like an EU grant for shoehorning Kosovo into the plot? Because Jesus God.

All in all, I would've been better off just reading the next novel in the series, which I got for cheap used along Elie Wiesel and something called Losing my Espanish by Herman Carrillo. There was much more I wanted to buy but I kept swatting my hand every time I reached for something by yet another White guy (particularly another dead White guy). Unfortunately, that's almost all there was in the foreign-language section. It's particularly annoying to find newer authors I'd love to read more of (like Jelinek or Barbery) in translation but not in the original. But that's what potluck nets you.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
I was somewhat ambivalent about my annual visit to the Irish-American Heritage Center on Saturday and then, when I felt a twinge of gout, I decided the last thing I needed was to drink a lot of beer. So I gave it a miss and tried to get some things done at home instead. Things like making Irish soda bread and reading a murder mystery set in Galway. This was supposed to culminate in me writing an entry about my doings complete in Irish, but I just ran out of steam before that happened.

Partly it's because I decided to catch up on my NetFlix viewing so I could send the discs back and get me something Irishy for tomorrow. I've had Royal Flash and Coup de torchon at home since before [ profile] monshu's surgery. I thought the former would be a delightful romp that we could enjoy sometime when we really needed a break from it all, but neither he nor my mother ever had any desire to watch it. It's amusing enough, but one can kinda see why it was never picked up as "a series like James Bond", as the producers were hoping for. For me the most outstanding thing it had going for it was Oliver Reed as Bismarck; every time he came on screen, my eyes would lock on him until I sorta forgot there was movie going on in the background. Alan Bates was great fun, and the early cameo from St Bob was simply gravy.

Coup de torchon is an odder duck in almost every way. It's based on a novel by Jim Thompson about a bumbling small-town sheriff with a hidden sadistic streak, but in order to keep the racial elements Tavernier had to translate the action to French West Africa. Clearly, the budget was small, which contributes to the vagueness of the setting. The principles are in period costume, but the extras just seem to be wearing their ordinary garb as if that hadn't changed at all in fifty years. There are old cars and advertisements around, but this is a colonial backwater so that's all inconclusive. As a result, I wasn't sure what decade we were in and what "the war" was that was being talked about until Germany gets mentioned three-quarters of the way through.

From the plot summary, I had pictured something rather different: a punching bag who gets pushed too far and finally snaps, à la Joe or Falling Down. But even after he starts killing, he preserves his inoffensive veneer, dropping it strategically to terrorise individuals or win their complicity while everyone else continues to take him for a fool. The results of that are even more disturbing. Overall, a good study of the corrosive effects of being a low-level enforcer in a corrupt system (and as timely now in the age of Ferguson as ever).

Ken Bruen's The guards covers some of the same ground but in a less serious way. Soon as the book arrived and I saw home much dialogue there was, I knew it would be a quick read, which is why I decided to take a break from my other reading and tackle it Saturday evening. I ended up reading the whole novel in less than three hours with only a couple breaks, which is the first time I can remember doing that in simply ages. It's the first in a series and I may stick with it to see how Bruen deals with the instability of having a murderous alcoholic as an ongoing protagonist.

As usual, Sunday was chores day. It was also the warmest day of the year so far (save today) and I decided to take advantage of it by strolling over to the former Safeminick's on Ridge. A friend of ours had related to us how it'd bought by one of the Hispanic minichains which didn't seem to know what to do with all the space. There solution seems to have been to fill it with every kind of crazy ethnic goods they can find. So it's the kind of place which has five brands of sugar wafers, only one of which is American and it's not Nabisco, while at the same time carrying only one brand of hummus. But if you want one-stop shopping for frozen idli, canned ackee, grass jelly drink, and Belarusian "wellness mayonnaise", then this is your store.

Unfortunately, I misunderstood the Old Man when he gave me a list of ingredients for dinner. Since he'd started cooking again the previous week, I thought we was offering to fix it himself when it turns out he was only "making suggestions" on what he could "help me out" with. This sparked an ugly fight at quarter to six when I discovered he was expecting me to do all the actual cooking. I'm so anxious to return to our old routine, I keep forgetting that it's something we should be renegotiating constantly in light of [ profile] monshu's recovery rather than making any assumptions about. His making quiche tonight as a peace offering. Maybe that can be a stepping stone to getting this all worked out.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
The city I grew up in had but one art cinema. Happily, it happened to be located close to where I lived. I have vivid memories of inviting several friends to see a Mike Leigh film there for my 18th birthday and having to "translate" much of the Cockney dialogue for one of them. But I remember the movies I didn't almost as well as the ones I did. When I got a circular, I would read through the synopsis of every single film even though, at best, I saw maybe one in twenty.

One which particularly lodged in my brain was Tenue de soirée ("Evening dress"; shown here under the title "Menage"), a little French film starring the then-unknown-to-me actor Gérard Depardieu. I wasn't out to myself yet, but I was moving in that direction, and the homo romance at the centre of it intrigued me. The description I remember is too detailed to have come from a single-paragraph blurb, so I must've read a review of it in the local paper as well.

It's hard to imagine what kind of effect the movie would've had on me had I actually seen it. It would've been my first full frontal nudity, my first simulated gay sex. Depardieu's Bob might've become fantasy fuel in the same way as Rod Steiger's Komarovsky. (I saw Doctor Zhivago for the first time the year after.) I certainly would've imbibed some bizarre ideas about gay relationships while having almost every stereotype of French artsiness and lubricity completely confirmed.

Seeing it nearly thirty years later is a markedly different experience. Titillating, not groundbreaking. I'm jaded enough to note how little the sex scenes show rather than how much. The rampant misogyny and rapey notions of what constitutes romance and seduction simply make me shake my head. Et je comprends en fait un peu du français. Modest though its charms, I have to admit that I had no idea where it was going and my interest in finding out never wavered.

Jan. 15th, 2015 10:04 pm


muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Having read Run, I'm really not sure why it was recommended to me. It's not a bad novel, but neither did it impress me much. As I may have mentioned, Patchett's capable of writing some very emotionally affecting passages but only so long as her characters don't speak. Whenever there's dialogue, I get fatally distracted by how unconvincing it is--particularly if an adolescent is speaking. I found myself wondering, for instance, if she'd ever listened to how college-age males actually talk to each other.

Compounding the problem, the novel supposedly addresses issues of privilege and race. I also mentioned that I was sceptical how well a well-off White woman from Nashville could write urban Black characters. With good reason, as it turns out. Everyone speaks standard English all the time, from taxi drivers to the young girl who we're supposed to believe grew up in the projects. If I told you who the characters were and then read you lines at random, I suspect you'd have difficulty matching them up. You certainly wouldn't be able to tell me they were all from Boston, that's for sure.

But what I really can't forgive is the Mighty Whitey storyline which requires bumping off the one character who stands in the way of having the poor (but preternaturally gifted, mature, and well-mannered) kids delivered into a rich White family who can guarantee them a life full of wins. In the back-of-the-book interview there's some guff about how it's a book about about community and responsibility and giving back. (She actually calls it "a novel about politics".) But to me it was all about flattering us White liberals for our token acts of charity. No wonder the NYT loved it.

I'm not sure what it will take to wash out the memory of it. As I was writing some more background for my RPG character I realised that, without intending to, I seem to have made her very similar to the (human) protagonist of [ profile] nihilistic_kid's Sensation. Which, naturally, reminded me of my intention to read the novel. But even if Amazon has buried the Hachette, I'm still not fond of relying on it more than I need to. So I ordered it directly from the publisher and god only knows when it will arrive.

In the meantime I guess I still have my short stories. Patchett's artificial Negroes made me long for a taste of the real thing, so I'm thinking of picking up Edward P. Jones once again. On the strength of Lost in the city I grabbed All Aunt Hagar's children but I still haven't gotten around to cracking the cover. That's an easily-remedied oversight.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Last month, when I was casting about for movies to NetFlix, I tossed on couple of the better-looking dramas concerning Henry VIII and his wives. Then, a few days back, when I was feeling in need of some inspiration for the final push on Wolf Hall, I pushed Anne of the Thousand Days to the top of the queue. A sumptuous Technicolor costume drama starring Geneviève Bujold and Richard Burton? How could I go wrong!

I couldn't. Burton may have hated the film, but I loved him in it. Even when he was being hateful. Yeah, the acting can be a bit declamatory at times, but some of the dialogue is bracingly lewd and entertaining and the scenes with Bujold are touching. Her Anne is more sympathetic than Mantel's version without being as insufferably virtuous as Donizetti's heroine.

In fact, I was taken aback by how wanton she's portrayed in the opening sequence, where she admits to not being a virgin while propositioning Percy. And even moreso that, despite that, she's allowed to be the model of fidelity in her marriage to Henry afterwards. The film is an interesting collision of both the end of the Hayes Code and the twilight of the traditional costume drama, so everyone's wearing amazing embroidery while talking freely about adultery and incest.

Among the supporting cast, Torontonian John Colicos (a familiar face from the bad tv of my childhood) stands out as the oily lawyer Cromwell, as do Anthony Quayle as Wolsey and Irene Papas as Katherine. I'm sure errors of fact are legion (even with my rough understanding of the timeline, I caught some hiccoughs in the chronology) but there are worse ways to spend a couple hours on a cold winter's evening.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Our opera subscription this year includes two opening nights, and somehow I've managed to dress down for both. My excuse this time was that I didn't even remember I had an opera until 10 a.m. this morning. In fact, I didn't even remember then; I texted Nuphy to invite him to join me at the Christkindlmarket and he was like, "I thought we'd stop by before Anna Bolena tonight." I asked him why he hadn't reminded me and he was like, "I sent you the dates." Yeah, you did, but that was seven trips to the hospital ago.

I still had time to dress up, of course, but my need to see my best pair of slacks ruined by some yahoo's mug of Glühwein was far too small--as small as my desire to see my wool topcoat smeared with sour creme, so I wore my parka. As it happened, neither of these misfortunes took place. Murphy's Law has something to say about that, I think.

I haven't seen Maria Stuarda, but I haven't on good authority (i.e. Nuphy) that Anna Bolena is no Maria Stuarda. It's the libretto that's to blame, it seems. Maria has the advantage of being based on Schilling. Anna is based on the works of two minor Risorgimento poets. You won't find any drama in it, only melodramma. When the score isn't flat, it's laughably obvious (I think "Weeping, she suffers!" may deserve an award for Least Necessary Line of Dialogue in a Grand Opera) or just laughable (Henry's "I'm outraged!" drew chuckles from the crowd; as Nuphy commented, "That isn't a good sign").

But bel canto opera is all about the singing, right? And we did have singers. John Relyea is strong and menacing as Henry VIII. I spent the first fifteen minutes of the opera pining for male voices, so his entrance came like a bracing splash of aftershave. Nuphy's secret boyfriend Hymel made less of an impression. Excellent technique and tone, but a voice a bit too small for this house. (Honestly, the opera is a bit too small for the house, but that's the Italian repertoire for you.)

I was genuinely fooled by Kelley O'Connor's trouser role. Nuphy had to check the programme to confirm that, yes, this was a female singer in drag and not a countertenor. Not only is her build remarkably masculine, but even her voice sounds more boyish than womanly. Jamie Barton as Seymour was never actually shrill, but she got too close for my taste, despite singing well throughout.

But the opera belongs to Radvanovsky as the eponymous heroine. She sings almost the entire three hours and--as per usual--needs to keep a good bit in reserve for her final scene, which she absolutely nails. I would've fallen asleep at that point if not for her. Nuphy cavilled that she didn't sound like she was really suffering, but you could've fooled me. One of her more piercing cries made me start in my seat.

The less said about the production, the better. As usual, we challenged the UofC professor with us to find some sense in it, but he made only a few half-hearted stabs, calling it "safe" and "practical". There was a certain elegance to the minimal staging and he admired the Rembrandtesque tableaux in which the chorus was arranged and lit, but to me that only emphasised the staticness of the action. The lighting seemed harsh in places and I caught at least one outright error. From our angle you could see the tape marks on the stage and, as usual, many scenic choices didn't work (such as the use of narrow bands of colour upstage).

Am I glad I saw it? Well, it was a break from the usual warhorses. Would I pay to see it again? Not really. More than anything, watching it made me want to rent a copy of The Lion in Winter to curl up with on the couch with [ profile] monshu.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Ages ago now, Nuphy and I went to see la Gran Scena at the Athenaeum in Lakeview. Vera Galupe-Borszkh, alter ego of the group's founder Ira Siff, was the first person ever to attempt to explain the plot of Il Trovatore to me. "Even eef you understant Trovatore," she warned, "you don't understand Trovatore. Nobody understants Trovatore!" That line got a big laugh, and I love to repeat it, but I acknowledge that it's not actually true. As our seatmate pointed out Saturday evening, the plot does make sense--provided you accept the ludicrous central conceit of a woman so maddened by grief she would cosign the wrong infant to the flames.

More importantly, however ridiculous the plot, the emotions are true and Verdi supports them 100% with his incredibly tuneful score. (I remember at one point in Act 2 thinking that, in many a lesser opera, Azucena's second aria would be a standout. Here it hardly leaves an impression, coming soon after the famous Anvil Chorus and right before Il balen del suo sorriso.) The action also moves along at a good clip, rendering my worries about being able to stay awake after my restless nights a bit silly.

Part of the reason for that is the production, which makes use of a revolving stage in order to expedite the many scene changes. Since this was my second time seeing Edwards' stage scenery, I was less bowled over by it and could focus on the parts I found wanting. For starters, why is it so ugly? The buildings are all Brutalist concrete slabs with minimal ornamentation, the ground is blasted rock and dust, and upstage right is dominated by a forest of charred poles. I kind of liked that, actually, since it recalls the death of Azucena's mother and the pall it casts over the entire proceedings, but even Nuphy was at a loss to explain the huge crucifix in the middle--nor why all the costumes are Regency. (Leftovers from another production? Lyric has to cut corners somewhere, I guess.)

The barrenness of it all also complicates McVicar's job as director. Leonora's first scene with her maid has the two of them running inexplicably around their featureless box--it's hard to add stage business with no props but neither can you let the performers remain static. But the next scene is even odder, with di Luna standing outside a wall which suddenly turns out not to be a wall at all before arranging himself into puzzling configurations with Leonora and Manrico. The men don't do a convincing job of trying to get into a fight, and she does an even less convincing job of trying to separate them.

But all this faded under the brilliance of Verdi's composition as conducted by Asher Fisch and sung by a cast adequate to the challenge. Caruso is supposed to have said that all you need for a successful Trovatore is the four greatest singers in the world. Obviously we didn't have those, but there wasn't a bad voice in the bunch. Sure, the mezzo and the soprano didn't have the sweetest voices I'd ever heard, but when it comes to Azucena, that can be passed off as characterisation, and for our Leonora, I'm just glad she could hit all the notes without getting screechy. Our old standby Silvestrelli sang Ferrando and Ryan Centre alumnus Kelsey was the Count, so there was no risk of being overwhelmed by the orchestra even when it was blasting away. Most impressive, however, was our Manrico, Yonghoon Lee. His acting may be stiff (something which worked better when he played Don Jose four seasons back than it does now), but cuts a striking figure and his voice is impeccable.

It was fortunate that Nuphy had his opera glasses because the chorus was even more toothsome than usual. He'd heard about the beef working the anvils on stage and was not disappointed. I was most impressed by the convent scene (even if it was somewhat incompetently blocked--how is it that only gypsies have flintlocks?). Forming the backdrop to the interior is a chainlink fence several stories high and the supernumeraries hanging off of it hold their poses for the duration of the scene. That's more impressive to me than wielding a big hammer, no matter how shiny you are.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
How many years ago did I buy Stoner--two, three? It was at some point when the Powell's on Lincoln was still in operation. All I knew about the novel then was that it was set in Missouri--at the University of Missouri, as a matter of fact. So I kept meaning to read while on a trip to Missouri. But that never worked out. Nonetheless, it stayed near the top of my to-read pile and was never very far from my consciousness.

So when mentions of it popped up earlier this year, I took notice. The last straw was this map of the "Best Book for Every State". It's absolutely perverse in its amnesiac contrarianness (as I told the friend who posted it, "How can I take seriously a list of American literary greats which doesn't include either Twain or Faulkner?")--plus the inclusion of an entry for New York City separate from New York State is simply trolling--but there had to be some there there. And I wasn't the only person in my circle to notice all the hype. When I needed help interpreting a puzzling line, I turned to my best-read colleague, who admitted to giving in as well and reading it earlier this year. "Why is this fifty year-old book getting so much attention now?" she asked, and I had no answer for her.

One of the blurbs on the back of the Modern Library edition calls it "a perfect novel". I'm not sure what prompted this judgment apart from the way in which it very neatly comprises the arc of one man's life. Other characters appear (and I can't agree with McGahern's forward in which he praises how fully developed each of them is) but the focus remains firmly on the protagonist and everyone else is clearly depicted from his point-of-view. It starts with an unpromisingly modest assessment of this life, but I quickly knew that this wasn't a book I was going to find hard to finish.

In retrospect, I felt the novel was at its best when depicted the disastrous marriage between Stoner, a real son of the soil, and his neurotic bourgeois bride. The tragic collision of two horribly shy people who seize each other with desperation, clueless to how fundamentally unsuited they are to each other, was riveting. So was, for different reasons, the implacable feud which develops between Stoner and the incoming department head. I had to steel myself against reading the book in bed, and I know that at least one night it contributed to my insomnia. Not since Shalimar the Clown, I think, or The true history of the Kelly Gang have I felt such fury while reading nonfiction.

But I'm absolutely mystified how McGahern can term Lomax, Stoner's colleague, "the most complex" of Williams' "brilliant portraits". He's considerably less developed than Stoner's daughter, let alone his wife, and at times seems (like Stoner's oldest friend Finch) creakingly close to being a plot device. I feel like there must've been some mid-century stereotype of the physically disabled that's simply inaccessible to us now. McGahern doesn't even attempt to make such a case for Stoner's "little coed", who reads way too much like the author's attempt to rationalise his own mid-life infidelities. (The breakup conversation where she agrees completely with Stoner's summation of their relationship and absolves him entirely for choosing his work over her is particularly embarrassing.)

In the end, it feels like a story with limited ambitions that fulfills them abundantly; a great small novel. I'm not surprised it held so much resonance for me given the parallels to my own biography (I shudder to think what might've become of my mother if she'd been born a generation or two earlier and hadn't had her career) and its academic setting (what my colleague suspects is the real reason for its current fame). Now we'll see if I can find the same in the work of a gay man of [ profile] monshu's generation.
Nov. 10th, 2014 12:44 pm

Du rififi

muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Yesterday's feature presentation was Rififi. As I suspected, it's suffered a bit from decades of imitation. One of the blurbs from the trailer called the suspense during the half-hour heist sequence "almost unbearable". Believe me, it's quite bearable--to the point of near boredom, some might say. For me, the tension only really ratchets up when the whole thing begins to unravel.

For me, the history of the picture was as interesting as the story on screen, if not moreso. For instance, I was tickled to find that the surname of the author of the original novel, Le Breton, is a nickname of the sort carried by several of the protagonists. But whereas Le Breton was actually born in Brittany, the actor playing "le Suédois" is Austrian, "le Stéphanois" is from Belgium rather than the south of France, and--to top it all--Césare "le Milanais" is played by the director himself, who despite bearing the uber-Gallic name of "Jules Dassin" is a native of Connecticut.

In the accompanying interview, Dassin tells an anecdote about how Le Breton pulled a gun on him when asking him of the screenplay "Where is my book?" Apparently the source material is considerably more lurid and Dassin focused on the heist in order to cut a lot of it out. What's interesting to me is that despite this, he keeps in an amount of violence toward women that is shocking to modern sensibilities. Early on, a woman is beaten with a leather strap--by the protagonist. Sure, he's an anti-hero, but how many directors today would bank on the audience summoning up the least sympathy for a character like that today?

It's amazing how good the cinematography is given the small budget. There's a panorama of crumbling low-rise buildings in what looks like Montmartre that I'd love to have framed. Amusingly, I recognised a locale from the slide cataloging project we just finished up. There was an image of a barricade on the Rue Castiglione during the Siege of Paris with a view looking north to the Place Vendôme; the jeweler's they rob in the film is located north of the plaza on the Rue de la Paix in what even today is a high-end shopping street.

Dassin stated that the argot in the novel was so impenetrable he had to ask the producer to come over and read the book to him. The name rififi itself is a slang alteration of rif "combat zone" from an earlier colloquialism for "fire", a word unfamiliar enough to a Francophone audience that the theme song contains an explanation of the meaning (along with more disturbing references to partner abuse). Otherwise, the slang seems to mostly of a very common sort, e.g. words like gosse and mec that they even teach in French class nowadays.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Every year I consider dropping my subscription to the opera. As Nuphy reminded me yesterday, this is my 20th year. I've seen all the major works at least twice and, in many cases, the chances of the next production being superior to the last are minimal. (No way, for instance, am I ever going to see a better Nozze di Figaro than that one with Fleming, Terfel, Futrelle, and Graham, all at their peak.) At least when Lyric was commissioning a new opera every year, I was assured at least one work a season that I had never seen before, but that commitment didn't survive the recession. I think of all the live theatre or concerts I could be attending instead, but I remember that there's simply no way I'll go out without being coerced and I'd never subscribe to anything unless I had a partner willing to wield the upper hand, like I have in Nuphy. So why do I still send him a fat check and drag myself out for eight performances a year? It's because every now and again I have on of those evenings where I am absolutely enraptured by what's taking place on the stage. Yesterday was one of those evenings.

The opera was Richard Strauss' Capriccio, which--as it happens--was the very first one the Nuphy took me to. Not the first one I'd ever seen (that would be Così fan tutte, unless you're inclined to count The beggar's opera), but definitely my first one at the Lyric. It's also one of his absolute favourites. Which is hardly surprising, given that it's regarded as "an opera connoisseur's opera" due to the sheer density of its references and its abstruse subject. He's not only studied it but taught it as well (and developed his own slightly nutty theory regarding the ambiguous ending). And he confirmed that this production topped the previous one in every way.

First, I need to give full credit to Davis, who I normally never have a kind word for. He's better the more lyrical the material, but Nuphy's standing complaint is that he wants everything "pretty" at the expense of drama and definition. For whatever reason, though, he was completely on point yesterday and he never felt sluggish in his tempo or too mushy in his direction. When notes were meant to sound harsh, they sounded harsh. (Which isn't often--it's one of the most beautiful scores in opera.)

The performers were magnificent. I can hear a little roughness creeping into Fleming's tone, but she still has one of the single best soprano singing voices I've ever been lucky enough to hear live. Everyone else killed, with the sole exception of Annie Sofie von Otter as Clairon, who was overwhelmed by the orchestra at one point and made tepid porridge of her grand entrance. Of course, I have to single out Peter Rose, whose bottom was one of the real joys of Midsummer night's dream four years ago. I'm sure last time I heard La Roche's big aria, it seemed rather grandiose and longwinded; this time it was a showstopper. Iversen was making his debut and I don't recall Burden's performance from Lulu, but Skovhus was as solid as always.

The real challenge of Capriccio is staging. It's all one extended drawing room argument, and keeping that visually interesting for two hours drives directors to distraction. I'm really impressed with McClintock's work. He may have been following Cox' production closely, but I don't recall the middle section being so entertaining. The ballet sequence in particular was deftly handled, succeeding equally well as both dance performance and light comedy when it would've been all to easy to err on the side of slapstick.

The only real problem with it--and the chief complaint of Nuphy's--is that there's no mirror. Far from being a minor point, this is crucial to the climax, since the Countess' final aria is addressed to her reflection. Cox makes the house the mirror (which is true to the spirit of Strauss' allegory) by lowering a frame downstage centre for this bit. McClintock decided to do without it while positioning Fleming in the same place. As someone who remembers the previous production, this caused me no problems, but I wonderful how confusing it might've been for first-timers. Even just having a servant air-polish the space in the scene before (or the tragédienne check her coiffure) would've take care of this (though then you'd be left with the puzzlement of why La Roche addresses many of his arguments to his reflection rather than his opponents in the room).

These are things I noticed, but they are not details that diminished my enjoyment in any way. I was a little sleepy, having had a beer at dinner, but whenever I began to find myself drifting, I found that the music brought me right back. (Again, thanks to Davis for that.) I left giddy with enjoyment. (If only it were easier to preserve that emotion on the long el ride back north.)
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Pit Stop did have some elements I liked. For starters, most gay films end when the married guy comes out. Here that's already happened and instead we get a look at what happens when the lovers don't ride off into the sunset but the responsible one sticks around to give his child a stable home. We also don't see the accident that put someone into a coma, and we don't see them miraculously come out of it either. A less-than-accepting relative doesn't get lectured or undergo a sudden change of heart.

What it didn't have, however, was a satisfying arc. It feels unfinished, like there was at least another ten minutes of movie they forgot to film somehow. The central romance, if you can call it that, feels idealised and arbitrary and there's no sense of how it changes the characters whose backstories have been exposited so leisurely. So it all ends up feeling rather slack. I also joked to [ profile] monshu that it could just as well have been called Awkward conversations with poor lighting. But that's true of any indie mumblecore film, gay or straight, isn't it?

Given the sketchy plot, I'm not sure how much better calibre actors would've helped. It goes to show that there's more to making a good gay movie than simply steering clear of all the clichés which make so many bad gay films bad.
muckefuck: (zhongkui)
Normally, when I seen an opera, the only person to get a full breakdown is [ profile] monshu since, though he loves them, he very rarely accompanies me. I'll talk through some aspects with Nuphy and whoever else I run into at intermission, but that's about it. Talking something through is a good thing in that it helps solidify my thinking, which makes it easier to do a write-up. But too much of it and I tend to lose the will to compose an entry. I did so much talking about the Lyric's Don Giovanni over the weekend that I'm weary of it. Nevertheless, I still intended to do an entry yesterday evening, but the time I'd set aside for that got taken up by a reprise of my breakdown to Nuphy over the phone. Uncharacteristically, he did something I think he's done that at most twice before in all the time I've known him: he bailed halfway through. That's how much he hated Robert Falls' staging.

I think he was a victim of his expectations. I don't know Falls from Adam, so I had none. The Lyric doesn't have a great track record with original productions. Being a staid institution, they favour conservative ones. Often when a director does try a novel take, it seems they fail to think things through completely, creating a muddle. So I wasn't the least bit surprised to see that happen here. The coat check clerk called the production "crazy". I've been favouring the term "incoherent". To give you an idea: Before we went, Nuphy told me what the setting was, and I remember being intrigued by it. At the end of Act I, I turned to him and asked, "When was this set again?"

In Falls' notes, he said he was attracted to the period because it had a distinct lower, middle, and upper class. To underline this, he dresses the principles like urban playboys and the peasants like Andalusian villagers. I legitimately wondered if Lyric had sought to economise by simply borrowing the costumes from another production with a 19th-century setting. And just about the only thing in the entire production which says "Spain" to me is the mantilla worn by Donna Anna when she's in mourning.

"But she's in mourning for most of the opera, isn't she?" Yes, but it's easy to get confused given the number of costume changes. Those together with the crazy number of light cues (I counted more than a dozen in a single chapel scene alone) really mess with the chronology. Traditionally, it's considered to take place over the course of a day and a night, or sometimes a day and two nights. Hard to say what the intention is here: it's dark, then it's bright, then dark again. At the Don's party, his enemies are wearing garish fancy dress; in the very next scene, they've all changed back to what they had on before. Don Ottavio wears uniforms of two different colours for no discernible reason. When the Commendatore comes to diner, Leporello is suddenly clad in outlandish livery, like something from a Hollywood club.

If I had to choose another word to sum up the production, it would be "excessive". There's too much of everything. A whole cart of flowers for the wedding scene. The huge ornate metal coffin for the Commendatore (which somehow requires two fewer pallbearers than the number of people required to remove the actual corpse in the opening scene) groans under the weight of them. Later, Leporello has to climb an entire mountain of floral arrangements to read the inscription on the statue in the cemetery. It's like Lyric kept throwing money into the production budget until it attained a fitting grandeur for their 60th anniversary gala. (A similar lack of restraint was on display in the main lobby.)

Which would all be fine, of course, if it made some sense. But too often it felt at cross purposes. The scene outside the Don's villa, for instance, is dominated by tremendous shrubberies. Yet when Masetto decides to hide in order to spy on him he goes downstage left where there's nothing at all and ends up tucking himself behind the proscenium arch. As ornate as her father's coffin is, it doesn't seem to draw the attention of Donna Anna until her aria requires it to. When it's not undercutting the action, this excess is underlining it to an almost insulting degree. In the penultimate scene, just in case you hadn't yet figure out what a total prick Don Giovanni is, Falls has him pelt Dona Elvira with food before dumping a carafe on her. It made me feel so sorry for Martínez, who deserved better than that after her terrific vocal performance.

I could go on and on--really, most of the reason I avoided writing this entry was that I didn't want it to be nothing more than a laundry list of complaints. On the plus side, the vocal performances were terrific. Silvestrelli killed in the last scene (and then was hustled off stage so anticlimatically that I completely missed his exit). Kwiecien and Rebeka were fantastic, as was Ketelsen despite a few opening-night problems keeping in synch with the orchestra. Davis robbed the music of dramatic punch, but otherwise didn't mess it up badly.

It was simply hard to concentrate on what was working with all the distractions. The best explanation I heard for the stage business of the second half was, "Do you think they were high as kites?" (The Don is shown sniffing something from a small bag at various moments, and at least once offering some to Leporello; I took it for snuff, but given the period it's quite likely it was intended to be cocaine.) I spent most of a scene trying to figure out whether a half-naked bound figure lying stage left was unconscious, dead, or merely metaphorical.

All in all, a memorable experience, but not a transcendent one. The crowd felt like an extension of the spectacle. Nuphy and I actually ended up on the edge of the red carpet trying to flog our herniaed seatmate's ticket and given ample opportunity to photobomb glitterati in our Obama jeans and off-the-rack finery. Quite a few of them must've been first time opera-goers judging from the surge of applause which cut off the end of one of the most famous arias in all of Mozart. I do have to wonder, given the production, how many of them will ever be coming back.


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