09 July 2011

Glass Slippers for My Birthday

Pretty pretty princess: Joyce DiDonato in London

In moments of reason, I know that major entertainments are not concocted exclusively for my enjoyment — but try telling me that around my birthday, when the Disney Company has traditionally unveiled (or re-released) some of its best movies, as if throwing a party expressly for me. I can’t help taking it personally.

This year marks a big millstone for me, and I do mean millstone: Five-Oh hanging around my neck. Perhaps this explains why the biggest movie event isn’t a Disney movie but the final installment in the Harry Potter films, heralded by posters announcing, “It All Ends.” I can’t deny that I’m taking that personally, too.

First Harold Camping, now Harry Potter tells me the end is nigh.
We haven’t even gotten to 2012 yet,
and already I’m bored with the Apocalypse.

Far cheerier is the return of Joyce DiDonato to the role of Cinderella, this time in Massenet’s version of the tale, in Laurent Pelly’s production, which she graced in Santa Fe a few years ago. Cendrillon brings Joyce back to Covent Garden, and it unites her with the sublime Ewa Podles´ as her stepmother, Mme de la Haltière. If that isn’t a gift intended for me, what is? I ought to be in London right now, to receive it properly, but instead I’ve settled for listening to the livestream. Cheaper, don’t ya know.

The story of Cinderella holds a special place in my heart at this time of year, because — 47 years ago, or so — my father took me to see the Disney movie. Just us guys, perhaps the only time we ever went to the picture show without the rest of the family. I was captivated, to the point that I made him stay through a second screening. “Just a little bit more, just a little bit more,” I kept saying, but when we came to the end of the fourth screening, Dad pointed out that we really needed to go home for supper. Conceding that even Cinderella sometimes had to leave the ball, I consented.

Later, I informed my preschool teacher that I had been to see “a movie with much wickedness.” Surely I didn’t mean the bawdy comedy Fanny Hill, which I was supposed to have slept through but had accidentally caught a nightmare-inducing glimpse of, from the back of the station wagon at a drive-in theater. Mom panicked as I paused dramatically, then said, “Cinderella and Her Wicked Stepsisters.”

Not long after, Lesley Ann Warren starred in a color remake of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s televisual confection, Cinderella, and naturally I fell for that, too. (I’ve yet to see the black-and-white original, starring Julie Andrews.) Granted, this wasn’t a birthday present, since it was broadcast in February, though it was unquestionably one of those occasions when “TV special” didn’t seem like an oxymoron.

Warren as Cinderella, 1965

Being a boy, I found only limited appeal in the Cinderella story, I confess, and I identified most closely with the mice. Even now I can barely fathom why anybody would ask to attend some silly party, when the Fairy Godmother might give you something really exciting instead, like eternal youth or the ability to fly: generally, it’s Peter Pan who shows me the way in life. And yet because I don’t have a Cinderella complex, it’s easier to sit back and enjoy the fun whenever the story is told well.

As a grownup, I saw Massenet’s opera for the first time, at New York City Opera in 2007, starring Joyce Castle as Mme de la Haltière. Surely no wicked stepmother ever provided an audience with more fun than “Big” Joyce did. It’s surely the will of Destiny that her birthday falls exactly six months from my own, and on the eve of my birthday this year, she’s singing Menotti’s The Consul in New Jersey. Granted, this opera isn’t laden with laughs, but as the Mother of a political dissident, Joyce is brilliant, and her every stage appearance is a gift — you bet I take that personally! (And I’ll be writing more about the performance.)

Wicked fun: Joyce Castle as Mme de la Haltière, NYCO

Sadly, I won’t be able to see “Little” Joyce in the live video simulcast of Cendrillon in British theaters (or theatres) on July 13. Still photos from London give us some idea of what she’s doing with the role dramatically, and she sounds delectable in the audio feed. Yet quite apart from the vocal demands of Rossini’s and Massenet’s heroines, “Little” Joyce makes an extremely effective Cinderella.

One reason, I think, is that as an artist she gives the impression that she’s just arrived at a truly magical ball. Like Cinderella in this respect, at least, she’s worked very hard for her moment of happiness, and you can feel how much she truly enjoys the good things that happen to her: the real-life palaces she visits on her travels, the handsome princes she meets (and in one case, marries), or the glorious music she’s given to sing.

The Rossini version: Joyce DiDonato in Cenerentola,
with Lawrence Brownlee as the Prince.
Houston Grand Opera

The story of Cinderella seems to haunt my birthdays, almost as if to insist that I learn something from it. The best lesson I can draw, then, is perhaps the grace that Little Joyce so beautifully embodies in both of her Cinderella operas: the ability to savor the good times and to forgive the bad times, to be ready for transformations of all kinds, at any minute, at any time of year.

And if things don’t work out, I can always hope that Big Joyce will help me to hide from the secret police.

So thanks, to both Joyces, for two truly lovely presents. Better yet, just by being a part of my life, you take some of the sting out of getting older.

Joyce Castle in Sam Helfrich’s production of The Consul
Glimmerglass, 2009

Joyce DiDonato in Massenet’s Cendrillon
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Through July 16
For ticket information, click here.
Live video simulcast in British theatres, July 13: for information, click here.

Joyce Castle in Menotti’s The Consul
Opera New Jersey, McCarter Theater, Princeton
July 16 at 8:00 PM
July 23 at 2:00 PM
For ticket information, click here.

Joyce DiDonato’s video recording of Rossini’s Cenerentola and Joyce Castle’s audio recording of The Consul can be purchased from Amazon.com.


Chelsea said...

As a loyal reader (though an admittedly sub-par commenter) and member of a younger generation, I have to say that I am envious of your age, backward as that may seem. People always tell me to appreciate my youth, and I certainly do, but I cannot help but wish sometimes that I were the one turning 50 :)

At fifty, you've seen so much of life, learned so many lessons and experienced so many unique things that it's probably hard to recount them. To be sure, your profiles of various friends and acquaintances have given me many pangs of jealousy and joy, as much for your skill with words as the experiences and personalities you describe (the one regarding Susan Graham especially was so delightful on every level that I was grinning for a solid hour- I've always wanted to tell you that :] ) These interactions and insights, to me, speak volumes about your character.

Every time I read your blog I feel privileged to experience the thoughts of someone whose life has thus far culminated in such admirable qualities as strength of opinion, keen wit and a great appreciation of "life's finer things" as you deem them, with or against the social current. Far too few people share these qualities, in my opinion.

To me, it seems that you've gone through life so far as well as anyone is able; surrounded by people you love and doing things that make you happy. I can only imagine what a joy it must be to look back on your life so far and know that each little decision you made led to the happiness you now enjoy. Being at the very beginning of the path is more than a little daunting, I'd say, and I doubt very much that I'll ever wish to repeat it!

 No matter how much time any of us has ahead of him though, I think you can be sure that you have not wasted the time you've already been granted. I only hope I can arrive at 50 with that knowledge. 50, I think, will not be a millstone, but a mantle that you will don with surprising ease and dignity as well as all the grace of the lovely Ms. DiDonato. 

I hope you won't think me presumptuous, and I'm sure you're fully aware of all the ideas I penned, but I will admit I feel as though I know you already after reading your thoughts for so long, and hoped perhaps you might find the thoughts of a reader and youngun' at least mildly interesting. I also hope you will forgive the length of my missive, I tend to wax philosophical in the wee hours! Perhaps I should  have saved this for the afternoon :) At any rate, I wish you the very happiest of birthdays and some abatement of your age-related anxiety, whatever its degree. 

If nothing else, this excessively verbose commentary can at least testify to my appreciation of your writings. Long live your blog! And Happy Birthday again :)

William V. Madison said...

My goodness, what a thoughtful note -- and really, what a generous birthday gift! I thank you very much!