Saturday, November 24, 2018

Luciano and Renata's Perfect Boheme

I've had a lot of time over this Thanksgiving holiday being at home and staying warm. A constant friend has been the TV. While attention has been given to Netflix, with "Get Shorty" and Season 3 of "Dare Devil" vying to be my favorite show, a lot of time has also been spent on the worth-every-penny "Met on Demand." In the past few days I've watched "Wagner's Dream"; "The Opera House"; "Giulio Cesare"; "Die Walkure"; and a few others, but nothing surprised me - or lite me up nearly as much - as a production I'd not watched since its re-release a decade or so ago - and an opera I often steer clear out of sheer over familiarity. The opera? "La Boheme." The stars? Luciano Pavarotti and Renata Scotto. While the singing, naturally, goes straight to the heart of the matter, there was something about the entire cast's performance, but notably our Mimi and Rodolfo.

While Scotto famously stated that after seeing herself in this production, she immediately decided she had to lose weight to become more effective actress, I don't think it's true. She can't by any stretch be considered "fat" and her Mimi could not possibly be more dramatic and heartbreaking without crossing over into caricature. Her gestures are large, born of a verismo-esque style that she brought to the many non-verismo operas, which had mostly been her bread and butter. Those larger than life gestures are not in the least unwelcome as the diminutive diva accesses the broad scope of emotions Puccini gives his Mimi; there is shyness, there is strength of purpose, there is a little pride, a little anger, a little self pity and a million other things all beating in this girl's heart. Her Act 4 "dumb show" during the interlude, after the other Bohemians leave and Rodolfo's back is turned to her - a noble, arduous attempt to rise from her death bed fails as the music swells with life and, caught in the blankets she is held, earthbound, is a lesson in physical acting that took my breath away. At almost every turn, Scotto is not a star, but a true member of an ensemble, something that seems to happen more these days, but was rare to see back then. But she knows when to turn it on and she shows us why death scenes were something of her specialty.

Also part of an ensemble was the Rodolfo of Luciano Pavarotti. Considerably svelter than before (and then he would be shortly thereafter) there is something of the natural comedian about this beary tenor and he exhibits a physical grace and energy that was and would again become rare for him. His rush to pick up a dropped item from the floor, his bending to the floor with Mimi, his "dash" across the stage, the faux balletic poses he makes for the Act Four dance sequence, it all feels natural and creates a Rodolfo that is sunnier and less "I'm just a dope in love" than we sometimes see. And then there's the singing. Ave Maria, the sounds made are the Rodolfo of one's dreams and together, he and Little Renata truly do make music.

The rest of the cast was, more or less, also up to the task, but there was no mistaking whose show this was, even while being about them all, though I'd single out Alan Monk's Schaunard for some touching acting, and being the sort of "framer"of the death scene, and wonderfully captured by the cameras.

Fabrizio Melano directs the cast in this uber-traditional production (on loan from Lyric Opera of Chicago) with no nonsense, and Levine and the Met forces were, even then, in tremendous form and in service of Puccini.

The excitement extends, as it always should, through the curtain calls and cheers, and while everyone milks it for all their worth, no one holds a candle to Scotto. She comes out to a roark from the house and immediately makes a deep curtsy-type bow moving almost ninja-like toward the stage apron to retrieve a small bouquet, and in so doing kneels, than sits there like she was Judy Garland. Naturally, the ovation intensifies and so does Scotto's beaming, beatific smile. Another lesson from the old days.

Oddly, I think a lot of today's opera's powers-that-be would find this old production with youngish, though still middle-aged singers, to be the antithesis of what they feel opera should be about. I'd disagree and say, at least in this instance, it is everything opera should and can be about.

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Saturday, November 17, 2018

David Gordon Green: Undertow

Last night I watched one of my favorite films of this century for the first time in easily over a decade, and it reconfirmed why David Gordon Green is among the smartest, best story telling directors we have. And he's only 43, which means he was still only in twenties when he blew me away with his two first feature films which he wrote and directed: 2003's All the Real Girls and 2004's Undertow. Both show an artist already committed to writing and telling his stories his way, no prisoners, no (seemingly) compromises. He's peppered his body of profoundly moving stories with some of the bawdiest, big selling comedies (Your Highness and Pineapple Express) which appeal to the Hollywood comic sensibilities, but allows him to have cred (and dollars) to make the indie art films he does better than most.

An actors' director in the very best sense, Green brings out great work from his casts,and in some instances, their very finest work: Jake Gyllenhaal in Stronger; Sandra Bullock in Our Brand is Crisis; Nicolas Cage in Joe. (Note: Green also makes for great, entertaining and hilarious television - just watch Eastbound and Down and try not to laugh.) In each of those early films he was already surrounded by acting talent that responded to his then unknown's direct, unfussy yet somehow still very artistic style. All the Real Girls featured Paul Schneider, Zoey Deschenal, Danny McBride and veteran goddess Patricia Clarkson who gives a masterclass in the art of acting and breaking your heart all while wearing a clown suit.

His second feature, "Undertow" - which I watched last night - is anchored by the character of Chris, portrayed by Jaime Bell - only three years after he lit up the world with his elegantly goofy dances as the young Billy Elliot. His performance here, age 17, is blistering and incendiary one minute, then the picture of calm responsibility the next. Bell's Chris artfully combines the youthful rebelliousness of a sixteen year old raised, along with Tim, his sickly little brother, on a southern pig farm, whilst being the only real adult of the family since Dad (Dermot Mulroney), an emotionally crippled young widower, has taken his boys and departed the real world. A visit by Uncle It is one of the bravest, strongest, most vulnerable performances I've seen from any young actor.

Without giving anything away, a series of horrific events forces Chris to take his brother on the road to flee for their lives. Green deftly moves his story from the crummy, comfortable confines of the pig farm, into the woods, along the seaside and the great unknown, as Chris cares for, is limited by, and inspired by his brother.

It's a rough, beautiful movie featuring a score of haunting, mostly incidental music by Philip Glass. I did not know the name Nico Muhly when I first saw this in 2004, but now a fan of his music, couldn't suppress a smile seeing his name in the credits as having prepared the chorus featured for the soundtrack.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Romanian Train Wreck

NOTE: I had not yet received the book when I created the following post. I realize I will never finish this book - it's not worth the the limited time allotted me. Nothing read, however, would appear to change what I put down below. gpp)

I have not yet read the book, but I do love me a good tale of delusion by an old-fashioned diva the likes of which we just don't get in the "real" world of music where diva defined the art: Opera.

In the October issue of "Opera News' Matthew Sigman reviews Angela Gheorghiu's memoirs: "A Life for Art," and I nearly fell off of my seat, as he tears into it - and the singer - with a delicious, devilish delight.

"After reading 'A Life for Art,' it will become painfully difficult to hear Gheorghiu's rapturous voice without hearing the human being behind it. Vain, trite, repetitive,, opportunistic, lacking insight and empathy . . .a self-indulgent tour de force that shatters any illusion of frailty, bravery or sensuality this gifted artist might hope to convey onstage. . . . deeply selfish . . . Solti weeps upon hearing her voice! Meryl Streep drops to her knees! Insults . . . meddles . . . loves seeing herself on film and shows gratitude to one one. So comically over-the-top . . . it borders on masterpiece. (it) could well be the standard by which narcissistic diva memoirs will be judged. Sadly, its author might consider that a compliment"

I generally steer clear from poison pen style posts, but this soprano - as much as I've loved her voice - has irked me almost from the beginning of her international career. Her self-indulgence is legendary. A critic friend (who adores her) was in Paris to interview her and she kept him waiting for hours in the hotel lobby. A maid or one of her assistants finally appearing to alert him that madame would be there shortly, but "in make-up." He couldn't resist adding the punch line, "all for a radio interview."

I can't wait to read this!

(Additional note: I CAN wait to read this . . . but likely never will. gpp.)

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Tuesday, September 18, 2018

At the Opera: Reflections on Booing and Audience Behavior

Opera singers, composers, designers, & directors, etc. are well aware of the "boo factor" before they enter their chosen careers. The tradition of booing has, for good or bad, been a part of opera for, well, long enough for it to become a tradition. Puccini, Rossini, Beethoven, Tebaldi, & Callas all knew this. So do Corgliano, Menotti, Ricciarelli & Pavarotti . . .

The knowledge that one might possibly be booed, has also serve to push some artists towards giving a "booless" performance -- i.e., putting forth their best effort for those whom they hope will continue to pay their salaries.

Opera is the most passionate (and insane) of arts and whether we want to believe it or not, has been known to, in the heat of the moment, cause people to do things they would not ordinarily do. Things like throwing rotten fruit and dead animals at a fellow human being. It can turn a normally gracious, well mannered woman like Ms. Ricciarelli into a raging harpy, screaming words which, I am certain, for the rest of her life will make her blood run cold each time she remembers.

In our "modern" world, we like to pretend that the "savage" has been tamed out of us, or indeed, never even existed. We like to pretend, sitting in our 3000 seat, air-conditioned Temples of Art that we have no relation to the sweaty, dusty, belching, smelly Punch & Judy watching audiences of the past. In this regard we have exhibited little progress from our perfumed-hanky sniffing ancestors who pretended that everything around them didn't smell like excrement.

I have not yet been given cause to boo ... most of the awful performances I've sat through were ones , I knew were going to be awful. If a normally solid singer was truly ill & tried to go on with the show, (even though he/she should not be onstage anyway), I would not boo. I don't really like the idea of it, yet somehow I don't want anyone dictating to me that I may not do so if the "need" arises.

Incidents of booing are probably rarer than they once were in the "Golden Age," but it is still part of the operatic tradition and not likely to change. At least I hope not.

There is no such thing as one type of opera attendee and we need to realize that we all must share the same houses.

Some years back, Fran Liebowitz wrote about persons whose individual sensitivities are offended by the behavior and habits of others whenever they go out. Essentially, she was of the opinion that if one is going to allow things extraneous to the actual event ruin one's good time, one should simply just stay home, adding there's a reason it's called "being out in public." I agree, and while this may be tough for some to accept, but the reality is that once beyond the confines and comfort of one's own personal space, life is pretty much a production of "Anything Goes!"

So, argue til your blue in the face, rebel with a cause, raise a stink, write management and do all you can to effect change but realize it will mostly be in vain as the kind of change you’re seeking is slow (if ever) in the coming.

There are those who talk during overtures and those who will ssshhh them; there’s the scenery applauders (and those who ssshh THEM); there are those who seem to have microphones on attached to their sneezes, coughs and candy wrappers, the bravoers; the booers, the chronic talkers (and those who ssshhh them); the stink bombs (both natural body odor and/or the bathed in perfume type); the ill-prepared matrons ("Harold, what IS she singing about?); those who will bravo a sustained high note concluding an otherwise wretchedly sung aria; those who snore through it all; those who applaud (and cheer) during a final note or during an orchestral postlude (and those who would forever ssshhhh them). Then there is of course, my favorite of all the "revitalized zombie." We all know the type: folk who, during a performance, exhibit no sign of life whatsoever . . . no applause, no bravi, not even a change of facial expression. Don't let them fool you as they are conserving every last bit of energy they may possess in order to leap over seats and/or the backs of others the minute the final curtain begins to descend to be the first out the doors.

If there ever was an era when "genuine, correct theatre etiquette" existed, I'm certain it must have been the briefest one in history.

Most people are wretched, uneducated, excessive, ill-tempered, uncultured slobs who are forever getting in my way. Short of execution however, or banishing them to some cultural Siberia, I've accepted the fact they forever will be among us, and I'm not going to let that interfere with my having a good time, not even if they're seated in the red velvet seat next to mine.

In our oh so modern, civilized world, we like to pretend the savage has been tamed or beaten out of us, in some futile attempt to believe it never existed at all. We may even convince ourselves that, seated in the plush velvet of our 3000 seat, air-conditioned temples of art, that we bear no resemblance whatsoever to the sweaty, dusty, belching, smelly Punch & Judy watching, knuckle dragging neanderthals who fell from our family trees. Sadly, in this regard, we've exhibited precious little progress and really no different from our perfumed-hankie sniffing ancestors who pretended everything around them didn't smell like excrement.

G. Paul Padillo August 17, 1997

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