31 August 2009

Progress Report 5: Madeline Kahn

In her Un Ballo in Maschera costume,
from Gene Wilder’s
Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother
This seems to have been one of her favorite publicity shots.

We were sitting there, Madeline and I, talking quietly about her life. She was in her early 50s at the time, her red hair was curled and styled, not long, and she wore a chic white suit; we sat in the lobby of a hotel in New York City, undisturbed by the bustle around us.

She began to tell me about an early experience in the theater, when a stage director sexually harassed her — much worse abuse, really, than that heaped mercilessly on her by Danny Kaye, when she appeared with him on Broadway in the Richard Rodgers musical Two by Two. I’d never heard of any of this — none of her family or colleagues had told me such a story. “Didn’t you complain to anybody?” I asked. “Didn’t you try to find someone to help?”

“Where was I supposed to go?” she answered. “I was so young, and he was the one in charge, after all. If I complained to the producers, they’d probably just fire me and hire someone else who could take it. I thought an actress had to put up with this sort of thing.”

I didn’t know what to say. I reached for her hand. “I’m so glad you’re telling me these things,” I said.

Only now did I notice that her eyes were brimming with tears. “So am I,” she said, taking my hand now in both of hers.

Then I woke up.

For it was just a dream. I never met Madeline Kahn, though for nearly a year I’ve been consumed with writing her authorized biography. The details of the story she told me don’t correspond to anything I’ve found in my research. (Except, as I say, a more brutish variation on her experiences with Danny Kaye.) Even if you believe in dreams — as some of Madeline’s friends do — this doesn’t seem to be a revelation. It may not be much of a sign, either. A little one, perhaps, but not more.

Those of a more practical frame of mind will be inclined to analyze the dream thus: I’ve been thinking about her a lot, and so naturally I continued to think about her in my sleep.

I hope she’ll be back, now and then, as I continue to write. In life, she’d have been horrified to know that anyone was writing her story: she was an intensely private person, I’ve learned, and discretion and dignity were among her most treasured possessions. But I believe that her audience — still vast — will appreciate her better if they understand what went into creating her art. And to do that, I’ve got to write as if I knew her.

For many of her fans, she is present. Quite a number of them (and at least one former colleague with whom I’ve spoken) didn’t even know she was dead. But such was her contribution to popular culture that she remains in our consciousness, as vividly as she appeared in my dream. That’s what my words must capture, and honor.

“Taffeta, darling!”
With Wilder, in
Young Frankenstein

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29 August 2009


In L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, we are intro­duced to Toto, a funny little dog who makes the heroine, Dorothy Gale, laugh – despite her grey surroundings. That dog and that laughter, Baum says, are the only color to be found on Aunt Em and Uncle Henry’s farm.

While many parts of the Oz books are fantasy, this part is not: there is nothing like a cute, funny little dog to brighten the day. That’s why I came to value Mac, my parents’ Maltese, who died this week after a sudden illness. Their days can use a little brightening, most of the time, and Mac was good for that, reliably so (albeit for very little else). He was only four years old.

It’s not easy to come home and discover, in your mid-40s, that you have been a neglected child all your life. Yet the facts cannot be ignored. Your parents have had another child: a pampered, terrorizing infant in whom they see not the slightest need for discipline, or even potty-training, who enjoys the run of the house, yet is not house-broken, and who has transformed every one of your relatives (even your aunt Letitia, one of the most sensible people you've ever met) into fools and suckers. Such was Mac.

You couldn’t stay angry with him, even when he habitually shat under your bed, because he brought such pleasure to everyone in Goliad. My dad, in particular, enjoys few pleasures any more, yet he was truly happy when Mac was in his arms; my female relatives turned into little girls in Mac’s presence, crawling around the floor after him, taking him for walks, dressing him up, and lavishing on him far more toys than I ever had.

Mac lacked the heroic qualities of Dorothy’s Toto, though he seemed unaware (like the rest of my family) of this fact. He never killed a Wicked Witch, though he harassed the squirrels in the yard; he couldn’t speak, though he did his yapping damnedest to join in every phone conversa­tion, including Transatlantic calls. As far as Mac was concerned, he was a paragon of wonders, and not one member of my family ever disputed with him.

If the universe were indeed guided by a just and loving power, Mac might have lived longer, while he went on making old folks happy. But no. Such was not to be. You may draw your own conclusions as to what this means, in terms of the cosmic order, but I will tell you this much: it is easier to face hard truths when you’ve got a puppy to play with.

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27 August 2009

Field Guide: Mélanie Laurent

A smile meant to be photographed:
She manages to be ordinary and beautifully unearthly at once.

Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Inglourious Basterds has opened, and among its international cast, an Austrian actor, Christoph Waltz, has received most of the attention. But one of its other stars is increasingly familiar to French audiences, and serves to remind me that, if I were more conscientious about my Field Guide, she’d be familiar to you, too. Her name is Mélanie Laurent.

She’s quite young, as you can see, and most of her career thus far has been devoted to extremely small roles, albeit sometimes in very big pictures (such as Indigènes). The exception has been Je vais bien, ne t’en fais pas (I’m fine, don’t worry), a psychological drama about a young woman who seeks her missing brother — or at least an explanation for his sudden disappearance. The film falls apart about two-thirds of the way through, as most French movies do. (Almost every film in this country would benefit from approximately six more months’ development.) Yet such is the strength of Laurent’s performance, such are the wit and tenderness she brings to the screen, that she carries the entire picture through even its weakest moments. We never stop to wonder why her character is in a mental hospital, for example, because we are so swept up in her characterization.

This is something that very few actresses with greater maturity and experience can pull off, and it bodes well for Laurent’s future. It was no surprise to me when she won the César for best newcomer — or, as it is put more elegantly in French, Meilleur Espoir Féminin, “best feminine hope” — for Je vais bien. She gave half a dozen great performances in that picture, binding them together seamlessly.

Though I’m not a Tarantino fan, and unlikely to see Inglourious Basterds (in which, to judge from the reviews, Laurent is not particularly well-served), I’m looking forward to what ought to be a truly exciting career.

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25 August 2009


The television series thirtysomething (1987–91) is being released on DVD at last, with the complete first season arriving in U.S. stores today. For fans of the show, the wait has been exceedingly long, while dozens of lesser series glutted the market. The reason most often given for thirtysomething’s slow start out of the gate is music rights: the soundtrack is fundamental to the environment of this show, but rights were granted in pre-DVD years, and had to be renegotiated. I never quite bought that excuse, but I’m prepared to be mollified, now that the show is available again.

Initial reviews, in the New York Times and elsewhere, already are calling the show “dated,” because it centers on yuppies. This isn’t fair, as anyone can attest who remembers thirtysomething’s inception, because yuppicentrism has always been a critical charge leveled at the series; in truth, only a few of the principal characters (Michael, Ellyn, arguably Elliot) can be construed as true yuppies, and all of them were ambivalent about their status — Michael especially. For daring to suggest that yuppies might have inner lives, and connections to our lives, the show received its share of scorn. Jay Leno wasn’t entirely off-base, and very much in-line with popular opinion, when he said of the show’s navel-gazing approach to drama, “He’s saying, ‘What about my needs?’ and she’s saying, ‘What about my needs?’ And I’m saying, ‘What about my needs?’”

Look! They’re celebrating my 30th birthday!
(I took this show much too seriously.)

I was very much a fan of the show, which concluded its four-year run just a few weeks prior to my thirtieth birthday. thirtysomething seemed in many ways a blueprint for me and my twentysomething friends to follow, and we watched the series communally, in a group not unlike the tight-knit circle of friends depicted in the series itself. Some of us did live out variations on the characters’ lives; indeed, in the fall of 1991, I became what most people would call a yuppie, albeit every bit as conflicted as Michael Steadman, and I would be one for the remainder of the decade. Many are the times I have (like the show’s cast) regretted that there was no fortysomething, for just as the actors found that age even more challenging than their thirties, so have I.

But fandom doesn’t often age well. Certain entertainments I loved as a kid — The Sound of Music, Star Trek, The Waltons, many others — may retain some part of their power to move me, yet they can seem awfully corny now. I don’t regret having been caught up in them, yet I wonder how that was ever possible. Will I want to immerse myself in thirtysomething again, to bathe in its bathos once more, to lose myself in Hope and Michael’s house as I used to?

I suspect that the answer is yes, and one reason has little to do with nostalgia and a great deal to do with respect for craft. Watched again on YouTube, the shows aren’t quite as well-written as I’d remembered, their snappy dialogue too artificial to be natural and too mundane to be stylized. But the plots hold up, particularly after the first season, when the producers seemed to agree with market surveys that accused the characters of whininess. Beginning with the second season, the characters’ problems become all-too real.

Michael and Elliot lose their ad agency and must find work, winding up the squirming pawns in the hands of the demonic Miles Drentell; over the course of his years at D.A.A., we come to see that Michael and Drentell are locked in a struggle for his soul, and Michael must strive to regain it — or simply to be true to himself once more. Elliot leaves Nancy, then reconciles with her just in time for her to be diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Minor characters — and, in the final episodes, one principal character — die, and adult responsibilities have to be faced. And Michael’s cousin, the artsy Melissa, realizes that she’ll have to face those responsibilities alone.

Written out like that, the plots seem soap-operatic, and they may be: this was serial television, after all. But it was done artfully, and a couple of the actors delivered, week after week, performances that can take your breath away, if you watch them closely. I’m looking forward to reviewing the scene in which Polly Draper, as Ellyn, breaks up with her (married) boyfriend over the telephone. She’s just emerged from the shower, and wearing only a towel to which she clings nervously, she keeps her back to the camera for the entire, unbroken scene — using only her voice and her shoulder muscles to convey her emotional rawness. The moment is so powerful, you wonder whether you could bear to see her face; as it is, you can’t take your eyes off her.

In some cases, I’d like to go back, merely in order to hear the words again, particularly that phenomenal speech, late in the series, in which Miles Drentell (David Clennon) attempts to bring Michael back into the agency. Drentell describes advertising not merely in terms of seduction (as he himself is trying to seduce Michael), but also in terms of assimilation — a sore spot for Michael, a non-observant Jew with a shiksa-goddess wife — and the American Dream. Having laid out for Michael exactly what advertising is, and why he and Michael are good at it, Miles remarks, “I thought you knew that.”

Clennon: A really good Bad Guy

Well, Michael knew, but he didn’t want to admit it. Unlike some of us (namely me), he had the advantage of a boss who would tell him so unambiguously what it was he did for a living. Clennon’s performance is so surprising, so electric that the producers brought him back, still as Miles Drentell, in another series, Once and Again.

Not all the actors are of this caliber, notably series regulars Peter Horton as the carefree academic Gary, and Mel Harris as Hope. The cards are stacked against Harris somewhat, because she’s supposed to be an especially brainy graduate of Princeton: often you can see the actress has no idea what esoteric cultural references her character is making or how to pronounce them. (Couldn’t somebody have coached her? The other cast members never have this problem.) Harris is, however, gorgeous, and what’s fundamental about Hope and her relationship with Michael — that either would sacrifice everything for the other, though neither understands the other’s torments — shines through consistently.

Some of the supporting players are superior, including such veterans as Shirley Knight (as Hope’s mother), Phyllis Newman (as Melissa’s mother), the great Sylvia Sidney (as Melissa’s grandmother), Eddie Albert (as Elliot’s father), my beloved Jack Gilford (as a rabbi too good to be true), and Paul Dooley (as a business associate of Michael’s). And two recurring characters are noteworthy: David Marshall Grant (Russell) and Peter Frechette (Peter) shared the first same-sex bed scene in network television history, and each of them used to work out at my gym.

Grant’s Russell gets the most screen time, helping to define the plight of Melissa’s singledom (she’s a fag-hag), but his is more than a plot device, it’s a winning performance, one of the first gay characters on television in whom I could see myself and my friends. Nowadays, Grant writes and produces Brothers and Sisters, another series from Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz.

Tough mama: Patricia Wettig

Patricia Wettig’s characterization of Nancy earned her more critical acclaim and awards than the rest of the cast got; what’s striking about her work is that she never seems to give a damn whether we like her. That’s a rare quality in any actress, especially in television, but Wettig seemed to exult in Nancy’s rough edges; she remains abrasive even when Nancy’s undergoing chemotherapy. Frechette follows her example when he returns, late in the series: AIDS can’t make a soap-opera victim of him, and just as Nancy refuses the others’ pity, Peter refuses Michael’s anguished attempts to help him (and his righteous liberal guilt, too).

The two greatest performances come from the actors playing the characters with whom I did and do most closely identify: Michael (Ken Olin) and Melissa (Melanie Mayron). Both cousins are trying to wed their art to commerce: Michael’s a writer, Melissa a photographer. Both will be forced to make compromises, and Michael will rationalize his in terms of responsibility to his family. But only Melissa winds up alone. Her raucous sobs, following the death of that principal character — the moment she knows she’ll always be alone — are unlike anything I’ve ever heard in a television drama.

Both Olin and Mayron act with their eyes, a wise choice in a medium that thrives on close-ups, and both invest the gaze with pain and sadness. (Mayron’s crooked smile helps suggest that, even when she’s happy, she knows she’s missing out on something.) One season concluded with a shot of Michael, newly ensconced in his executive office at D.A.A., looking up and seeing the approach of his aptly named wife. Yet as she nears his desk, Olin’s eyes go completely dead. (You knew right then that Hope and Michael’s marriage was in trouble, as the next season would confirm.) That’s breathtaking control of an actor’s instrument, and it’s something I have seen another actor do — namely Laurence Olivier, in The Entertainer. Neither Olin nor Mayron has ever had another role of such depth and scope, before or after thirtysomething; both are now directors.

The eyes have it: Ken Olin

My friends and I used to watch and discuss each episode, analyzing the details with even greater gusto than the characters themselves could muster. (You may want to take into account that I’ve written all this without recourse to notes: the show is etched in my memory. Like it or not.) To understand it in historical context, as the Times tried to do in its review, one may need more objective distance than I possess: I’m not very good at putting another great soap opera, George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, in perspective, either. (On account of I’m so much like Will Ladislaw, and all.)

Yet just as Middlemarch invited me into a fully realized world, so did thirtysomething. Only a few television shows (and only a few more novels) have managed that feat. I know the floor plan of the Steadman house as surely as I know that of my grandparents’ home (which is as surely as I know the layout of the bridge of the starship Enterprise or the kitchen of 165 Eaton Place), and for a long time I’ve yearned to go back to Hope and Michael’s, much as if I were homesick.

The flip side is that I’ve resisted watching other, more recent television shows produced by Zwick and Herskovitz not only because serial television no longer suits my schedule or my temperament, but also because I don’t want to see them rent out my old bedroom to strangers. The house in My So-Called Life was nearly identical to the Steadmans’, and probably just down the street from it, and the shows’ viewpoints and approach were similar, too; likewise, Once and Again and Brothers and Sisters have appeared too close for my comfort, and I’ve stayed away altogether.

I don’t know what I’ll find when I come home to thirtysomething. I’m older now, not younger, than the characters, and I’ve lived out several of their experiences. My perspectives will have changed, while theirs have remained what they always were. I expect I’ll give the thirtysomething DVDs a try — maybe by Netflix, instead of by purchase.

And if I’m not satisfied with the show, I’ll whine about it. They taught me how, after all.

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23 August 2009

Don Hewitt

The Big Cats: Hewitt (right) with a few tigers

Don Hewitt was a short, scrappy guy who looked far younger than his years. Part of this was due to his heavy-duty suntan, in all seasons, but mostly his energy made him young. The spring in his catlike step, the eagerness for another hot story or a down’n’dirty fight (and forget about playing fair), these things defined him. Yet nothing can explain to my satisfaction how he became the biggest cat in a cage full of tigers: Dan Rather, Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Diane Sawyer, Ed Bradley, and the rest, to say nothing of the CBS News presidents who cowered before him. For Hewitt was not only a tiger but a tamer, and the ringmaster, too, and 60 Minutes was very often the greatest show on earth — exactly what he believed it to be. When things were going right for him, as they usually were, you felt it throughout the News Division.

My direct contact with him was limited, during my years at CBS; in our few interactions, I found him as cagey as he was pugnacious, willing to listen (at least for a minute or two) to Rather’s assistant but generally already made-up in his mind and impatient with any need to persuade others of the rightness of his opinions. I was in no position to argue with him: you don’t argue with success, particularly not success on the scale that he achieved at CBS.

However, the misgivings he admitted about what he wrought — above all the surprise that became the requirement, namely that television news be profitable — were magnified in my vision. Sure, Hewitt himself did a great job, but lesser talents did lesser work, made more significant compromises. The line between entertainment and news began to blur the minute that Hewitt and his cohort first referred to interview subjects as “characters,” a telling word choice that provoked tremendous discomfort in me. In those days, I was writing novels in my spare time, and the distinctions between truth and fiction seemed important to me. Others around the News Division must have felt something similar: Dan Rather would bristle if you described a report as a “story,” or his newscast as a “show.”

Yet these people were, on their best days, among the most conscientious practitioners that American journalism has ever known. The danger lay not so much with them as with those outside and higher up, and in other shops, who didn’t share the core values. And because even Hewitt and Rather, Wallace and Safer, Bradley and Sawyer, Murrow and Cronkite were human, and capable of error, each misstep seemed to be taken as an excuse for greater laxity among others.

Over time, the very notions of broadcasting as a public trust, and of news as a public service, were lost. The people who still cling to those ideals are mocked, shoved aside, forgotten. It’s just a business now, and a great deal of it is show business.

I’ve groused before about the shabby state of journalism, but for now let this much be said: to whatever degree Don Hewitt was responsible for the decline in values, that wasn’t what he intended.

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22 August 2009

True Clemency

I am weary of sorrow, weary of outrage, weariest of trying to understand the unreasonable and unreasoning. And so, instead of commenting on the “release on compassionate grounds” of Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi, and on the hero’s welcome accorded to him upon his return to Libya, I ask you to consider instead one of the people he killed. If justice were possible, it is David Dornstein we would be celebrating with a ticker-tape parade in New York today, while Megrahi, a failed terrorist, suffered and died in silent anonymity.

And which of David’s accomplishments would we celebrate? How to choose among so many? He would be 46 now, a father, a writer, perhaps a rabbi, perhaps an actor. Everything seemed almost within his reach, when he was taken from a life he inhabited with such energy, such curiosity, and such charm. Who knows what he might have achieved? It might have been enough, had he been able to conquer the demons that troubled him.

But I’d march in any parade, on any pretext — hell, I might even dance with Megrahi — just for the chance to see David again.

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19 August 2009

Country Living

Green Acres, nous y sommes!

As I write this, Beynes is undergoing a drought, which I find curious: we had such a cool, damp spring! And rain again just yesterday! Where does it all go? Real country folk would know the answer to that, I suspect, and it’s just one of many reminders, the past several days, that I am not cut out for country living.

I thought I’d do myself a favor, and pull myself out of country competition when I gave up vegetable gardening a few years ago: the despair of watching my tomatoes rot on the vine year after year was more than I could handle, yet very much a part of the country experience, after all.

To the casual or urban observer, gardening may seem a peaceful, rewarding sideline, yet making things grow is a full-time job, in awkward postures, seven days a week, even when there is probably something good on TV. Your typical kidney bean is a proud, disdainful creature that really doesn’t care to sprout, particularly not in your vegetable patch, which obviously is fit only for weeds. It would prefer to sprout in your pantry, ideally in a plastic bag with all the other beans you bought and keep but never cook. You may try arguing with a kidney bean, but you will not persuade it; you must force it to submit to your will. And then, the rain will come, or else it won’t, and in either case, your bean plant will die before its time.

Mirabelles, fresh-picked

But in the garden here at Beynes we have perennials, currant bushes, raspberry vines, an old Canada apple tree, and hazelnuts. In defiance of all reason, they continue to produce, no matter what you do. You are required to do something about the fruits and nuts, then, or else suffer from a guilty conscience (how can you let so much edible material go to waste when so many people are hungry?), not to mention stepping in goo wherever you go for the rest of the year.

Lately, I’ve been gathering the mirabelle plums that are falling in profusion this August from the old tree we thought dead. Bernard had the bright idea to prune the tree, with the result that its yield has jumped from zero last year to a zillion this year. I honestly don’t know what to do with all the fruit. There is only so much jam that one person can make — and even less that one person can eat.

Each plum must be washed, sorted, and cut up individually. Ugly bits must be trimmed away. (This year, I note with interest, the birds have hardly touched the mirabelles. They must have forgotten, over the previous summers, that the tree bore fruit at all — because it didn’t.) Then one throws them into a pot and stews them in sugar, water, and a little lemon juice, on the hottest day of the year, in an un-air-conditioned kitchen. Then one puts the gooey mess into jars, and hopes the jam will set. For the first five kilos we made this summer, the jam did not set: this means the whole batch must be cooked a second time, adding a little pectin. The price of a jar of preserves at the supermarket — around $2.50 — begins to seem not just reasonable but charitable, as if they’re giving the stuff away.

Mirabelles, fresh-cooked
(Now just multiply this image by about 10 kilos.)

I have also dumped mirabelles into compote, a tart, and a clafoutis (my first), and eaten them raw. There are still several baskets of fresh mirabelles awaiting my attention, and the tree shows no sign of stopping. Real country folk would know what to do about that.

When I was a boy, I actually wanted to be a farmer. The appeal lay primarily in raising lots of animals. I liked animals, or thought I did. In reality, I liked looking at pictures of animals, and impressing grownups by correctly identifying the species. Put me in any close contact with an animal other than a dog (and a small, amiable, rather weary one at that), and I was forced to confront issues at either end (teeth, crap) to which I responded badly (terror, nausea). It took me a long while to appreciate that raising animals would mean that my home might smell as bad as the Hermann Park Zoo, a place I loved to visit — and to leave.

Because we travel so much, we don’t have pets in Beynes. This will come as news to the stray cat and its savage, adorable kitten that take up residence in the garden (and sometimes wander into the house) for a few hours each day. Nevertheless, country living does sometimes bring us into close proximity with animals, whether we like it or not. This weekend brought a turtledove, which came to the front yard and nested in the grass. And it soon became apparent that this wasn’t a mourning dove, but one ready to be mourned by others. It was dying.

Not the first time that a dying bird has landed on my doorstep. A dying pigeon is meant to be a bad omen — or signal of a Mafia hit — yet I’m perfectly capable of supplying the creature with a powerful significance and my own foreboding, regardless of traditional connotations. My dying New York pigeon marked my departure from New York, five years ago; the dying dove marks what is likely my departure from France.

The dove was frightened, and struggled to scoot away whenever anyone came near, but it couldn’t go very far. So I avoided the doorway and allowed him to die quietly and, I hope, with dignity. The next day, I scooped him up in a shovel and disposed of him.

Such things may happen to a city-dweller — they happened to me in New York. (In worse ways, too, since my neighbors in Beynes don’t practice santeria and didn’t cut out the dove’s heart.) Yet I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not really meant to be here.

Does anybody have a recipe for Hosscakes aux Mirabelles?
Thank you, dahlinks.

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14 August 2009

The Death Panel

CHAIRPERSON: Before we begin, I’d like to sing the national anthem.
“Hail to thee, Thou Great Obama!
Obama! Obama! Obama!
Hail! Hail! Hail!
All hail!”
Thank you. That brought quite the little tear to my eye. Now, our first order of business is an end-of-life consul­ta­tion for Mrs. Zachary David Alexander Efron, resident of the Southern Administrative District. Citizen Efron, are you here?

BRISTOL EFRON: You betcha.

CHAIRPERSON: Please state your full name for the record.

BRISTOL EFRON: Bristol Sheeran Marie Palin Efron.

CHAIRPERSON: You’ll pardon my saying so, but you seem to have an awful lot of children with you. Are they all yours?

BRISTOL EFRON: Yes, Citizen Chairperson, they sure are.

CHAIRPERSON: But your file clearly indicates that you have been a leading figure in the Teen Abstinence move­ment.

BRISTOL EFRON: I’m not a teenager any more! Besides, I don’t think you can really appreciate, just by looking at all thirteen of my children, exactly how often I do abstain! Why, just this morning, Zac and I —

CHAIRPERSON: But why did you bring them with you this morning? Surely you’re aware that, here in the United Socialist States of Obamerika, every citizen enjoys free childcare, whether they want it or not?

BRISTOL EFRON: I do, Citizen Chairperson. But I wanted my kids to bear witness to what we do here today. After all, some day it will be their turn to decide whether I live or die. I mean, I’m already 26!

CHAIRPERSON: I understand. Now then, whose fate are we deciding today? Whose life dangles like a piece of string cheese between our clumsy fingers? Whose —

BRISTOL EFRON: That would be my mother, Citizen Sarah Louise Heath Palin.

CHAIRPERSON: This would be the same Citizen Palin who was briefly governor of the present-day People’s Republic of Obamalaska, is that correct?

BRISTOL EFRON: You betcha. And for a slightly briefer period, she was also a candidate for the vice-presidency.

CHAIRPERSON: Excuse me — but according to her file, your mother isn’t particularly elderly. She’s not even 60 years old yet.

BRISTOL EFRON: Yes, that’s correct.

CHAIRPERSON: Why, then, have you come before this board for an end-of-life consultation?

BRISTOL EFRON: We’re kind of tired of having her around, you know?

CHAIRPERSON: I can understand that, but in the matter of termination, we weren’t expecting you for another 15 years. It’s highly unusual —

BRISTOL EFRON: We thought we could save the state a whole lot of money by terminating her now, instead of thirty years from now, when we’ve already paid to extend her life by artificial means, and all.

CHAIRPERSON: I see you’ve done your homework.

BRISTOL EFRON: I have, Citizen Chairperson. According to my research, caring for my mother could cost the United Socialist States of Obamerika as much as 60 thousand quatloos, by the time she’s 70. Whereas we could terminate her right now for a mere 40 quatloos — or even less, if we take her out in the back, hit her on the head, and bury her alive. I was really hoping the panel would approve that option.

CHAIRPERSON: I can see why. Is your mother able to appear before this panel today?

BRISTOL EFRON: No, Citizen Chairperson, she’s not.

CHAIRPERSON: Is she in poor health?

BRISTOL: Nope. She’s clinging onto life like a pit-bull, that one.

CHAIRPERSON: Then where is she?

BRISTOL EFRON: I believe right now she’s in Des Moines — I mean, the Central Administrative Zone of the People’s Republic of Iowabama. You see, my mom is, uh, currently campaigning. [Long pause] For the presidency.

CHAIRPERSON: The presidency! So there are mental issues involved?

BRISTOL EFRON: That’s right.

CHAIRPERSON: Her Obamacare file doesn’t indicate that.

BRISTOL EFRON: Well, how else would you explain her behavior?

CHAIRPERSON: I’m sure I wouldn’t try.

BRISTOL EFRON: Her positions on euthanasia have been made clear, however. Even before we knew she was … you know. [Gestures to depict moose antlers on either side of her head] As you can see, I have attached several statements, in which she totally says that there’s no point dragging things out, she’d only be a lame duck if she were to continue, and quitting before the job is finished is the best way to win in the long run. And like that.


BRISTOL EFRON: Basically, I’d like to do to her what she did to her governorship.


BRISTOL EFRON: And so, you know, I’m wondering whether the Glorious State will, you know … help me.

CHAIRPERSON: The deductible for her termination is rather high, I’m afraid. Are you and your family prepared to cover that expense?

BRISTOL EFRON: I was sorta hoping for a government grant, or some kind of bailout. And also not to get, you know, arrested, like I would if I just hit her with a shovel.

CHAIRPERSON: Have you filled out the relevant paper­work?

BRISTOL EFRON: Golly! There’s so much!

CHAIRPERSON: Termination of a Citizen is a weighty responsibility.

BRISTOL EFRON: It’s just that I’m not very good with exams and, you know, written stuff.

CHAIRPERSON: A fully licensed Obamacare representative will be able to advise you. Just fill these out, submit them, and we’ll have your answer in four to six years.

BRISTOL EFRON: That’s a long time! I was really hoping to get an answer right now!

CHAIRPERSON: Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a backlog at the present time. We have three members of the Bush family and Chelsea Clinton ahead of you already, as a matter of fact, with identical requests. It’s this panel’s Obama-given duty to determine which cases are truly urgent, and I’m afraid that —

BRISTOL EFRON: Urgent! Have you tried living with my mother? I don’t think I can take another two weeks!

CHAIRPERSON: We’ll do our best to speed up the process, Citizen Efron. But in the meantime, you may want to consider a little trip to Canada. If you know what I mean. They do good work there, very cheap, no questions asked and no deductible.

BRISTOL EFRON: Thank you, Citizen Chairperson! You won’t regret this.

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13 August 2009

Teen Angst

He vants to bite your neck.
Ringwald and Schoeffling in Hughes’
Sixteen Candles

My reading of Stephenie Meyer’s young-adult novel Twilight coincides with the death of film director John Hughes, and follows hot on the heels of my high-school reunion, which I didn’t attend. There’s a connection here, I realize: teen angst is at the heart of Meyer’s book, Hughes’ films, and my high-school experience.

Twilight turns out to be better than I’d expected, but the truth is, I didn’t expect much at all, and was so embarrassed to be reading it* that I didn’t even take it out of my bag on the bus back from Cooperstown. The narrative starts with deceptive slowness and a minute interest in banal detail that one can easily mistake (as I did) for inadvertent mediocre writing. Instead, it’s intentionally mediocre. Meyer is constructing what will be the book’s greatest strength: the thudding ordinariness of a physically clumsy, socially awkward, bright, sarcastic, completely ordinary adolescent girl, Bella. We need that set-up in order to follow the plot, which is mostly a dramatization (though I use that term loosely) of the girl’s most tortured inner monologues. Does the cutest boy in school hate me? Does he like me? Why does he like me — why would anyone like me? Will we go all the way? How will we go all the way?

Sam, the girl played by Molly Ringwald in Hughes’ Sixteen Candles, is prey to all the same anxieties.

Bella (Kristen Stewart) and Edward (Robert Pattinson),
in the film adaptation of

Meyer goes on about Bella’s angst for rather longer than I really needed to read, but she’s hit on the means to keep it interesting to the general audience. Vampires are often used to express sexual anxieties, and Meyer is pretty adroit at adapting the conventions to her high-school setting. Is it natural for him to want me like this? What if he bites/screws me? Will it hurt? Will I die/get pregnant? Or will I become a vampire/sexual being, too — will I become a creature of the night/grownup? The questions that Bella poses Edward, for page after page after page, about what it means to be a vampire are probably not far from the questions that most teenage girls would like to ask a boy. Most are questions that Sam wants to ask Jake (Michael Schoeffling), but can’t.

Edward answers Bella by telling her all those things a girl must want to hear from the cutest boy in school: endless variations on a theme of “You don’t know how beautiful, how special you are.” Most girls get this kind of reassurance only from older family members such as Dear Old Dad (Paul Dooley dispenses it, in one of the best scenes in Sixteen Candles), and in this context it’s worth pointing out that Edward is eight decades years older than Bella, closer to her great-grandmother’s age than to her own. Edward’s a dirty old man in an immortally hunky teenage body.

Yet he isn’t a child molester. He’s sensuous without being sexual: he touches Bella’s face a lot but seldom kisses her, and he goes on at length about how good she smells. He draws the line at doing the nasty — because he fears that in his passion he might hurt her. This is something that very few teenage boys worry about, I think, though many teenage girls do, and probably one reason the book and its sequels have found such a wide audience among girls and women. Edward is the ideal boyfriend, mostly.

He reminds me in this respect of Vincent, the crime-fighting, tunnel-dwelling, leonine hero of the TV show Beauty and the Beast, similarly incapable of fulfilling his desire for his lady love but perfectly willing to blab on for hours about his feelings, in a way that no real human male ever would. A lot of spinsters developed elaborate fantasies about Vincent, wrote them down and mailed them to CBS, when I worked there. I haven’t fully recovered from reading those letters.

Men! They’re animals!
A grownup variation — old enough to shave, anyway.
Catherine (Linda Hamilton) and Vincent (Ron Perlman),
Beauty and the Beast

But I haven’t fully recovered from adolescence, either. The long years of wondering how others viewed me, who I really was, what sex was, and what my feelings meant: riper fodder perhaps for a horror story than for a knockabout comedy like those of John Hughes. In some ways, I’m grateful for much of my adolescent experience. The quality of my education was, in retrospect, superior, and so were a handful of friends, to whom I still turn for solace from the hardships of life. But would I live through it again — much less live it endlessly, as poor immortal Edward Cullen must?

No damn way.

In the words of Maurice Chevalier (and Alan Jay Lerner),
“I’m glad I’m not young anymore.”

*NOTE: I had my reasons for reading Twilight, and some day, if we’re all lucky, I’ll share them with you.

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09 August 2009

Pater’s Nostrums

A subject fit for criticism

I’ve spent several pleasant hours reading The Renaissance, a collection of essays by Walter Pater (1839–1894). This eminent Victorian inspired a couple of generations of art historians, as well as the “Art for Art’s Sake” movement and Oscar Wilde. My direct contact with Pater’s work is overdue, and yet as I read, I’ve felt very strongly that most of my professors, starting with Sears Jayne, must have read quite a lot of Pater. The sense of recognition emanates from every page.

I was taught to be Pater-esque, if you will: to be unashamed of a thirst for beauty, to seek to harness that thirst, and to share with others. Pater concentrates on the fine arts, but in doing so he considers literature and history, too: when he turns his attentions to Michelangelo, he writes not of his painting or sculpture but of his poetry. My professors taught me to cast my net wide, too, when studying a subject, in order to capture its details.


Yet the most startling recognition came as I read Pater’s excuse for writing about Sandro Botticelli — for in those days, apparently, one needed an excuse. (After all, why bother with an unknown artist — as Botticelli was at the time — when there was so much yet to be written about the holy trinity of Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo?)

Suddenly I understood my own impulses, especially with regard to music. I had been chasing after several of my favorite singers, and writing about them (as you will have noticed in recent entries), though I have but scant qualification to do so, and though I’m writing for a general readership that, in many cases, probably knows even less than I do. And yet I was doing the right thing. Walter Pater told me so.

Susan Graham in recital

“There are a few great painters, like Michelangelo or Leonardo,” Pater writes, “whose work has become a force in general culture, partly for this very reason that they have absorbed into themselves all such workmen as Sandro Botticelli…. But, besides those great men, there is a certain number of artists who have a distinct faculty of their own by which they convey to us a peculiar quality of pleasure which we cannot get elsewhere; and these, too, have their place in general culture, and must be interpreted to it by those who have felt their charms strongly, and [these artists] are often the object of a special diligence and a consideration wholly affectionate, just because there is not about them the stress of a great name and authority.”

I hope my singer-friends won’t take it amiss that, for this present discussion, I relegate them to the status of a mere Botticelli. For it’s true that I have found in their work pleasures I can’t find elsewhere; indeed, I have felt their charms so strongly that I must seek them out, and sometimes, I must write about them.

Georgia Jarman & Lawrence Brownlee:
L’Elisir d’Amore at Caramoor

Music differs from painting in its transience: you can return to the Uffizi to see Botticelli’s Venus (which Pater describes quite beautifully), and the work will be more or less the same, even many years later. (You will be different, and so will the Uffizi, but those are different matters.) Music doesn’t work that way. It soars into the air and is gone. It will never sound the same twice. Probably this, too, is part of the reason I feel compelled to write: I’m seeking to capture by describing an individual, unrepeatable instant.

Toward that end, it’s futile to write, “She sang this note, then that one,” because that’s the sort of “technical or antiquarian” criticism that Pater assures us is reserved for lesser artists — and besides, since music is notated, one can always go back to look at the score, after a performance. (Or during, if you’re a jerk.)

Yet is it really illuminating to know that a singer transposed, or flatted, or missed a note, or nailed some other one? Not for most listeners, I think, and fewer readers. In any case, these things aren’t the true measure of a singer’s artistry, and they answer only with statistics the question of how she sang. And they do nothing to explain why we responded to her as we did.

Joyce Castle in Heggie’s End of the Affair

Pater will tell us something of a painter’s brushwork, but he doesn’t break down the paint by its chemical components; when he fixates on a small area of a painting, he does so in order to tell us how it fits with the whole, to describe the entire work so that we can share in its “peculiar quality of pleasure” — or, to use another of Pater’s favorite words, its “sweetness.”

This is surely what I was taught to do. What is unanswerable is whether I would have tried to do it, had I never been taught, or never picked up Walter Pater’s The Renaissance.

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07 August 2009

Feel-Good Movies

While in New York last month, I managed to catch up on a couple of movies that I hereby recommend with few reservations. The first, (500) Days of Summer, I recommend with no reservations at all, except the warning that it will make an uncomfortable date movie if your relationship hasn’t endured past the 501-day mark. The movie is all about the ways in which a girl (Zooey Deschanel) can speak her mind clearly and often, while her boyfriend (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) listens intently without understanding a single word. If there’s any chance that you’re in a couple like that — go see something else together, then catch (500) Days on your own.

The film is far from perfect — I agree with just about everybody else that the smarty-pants kid sister is a near-fatal flaw in the script — but when it gets things right, it’s pleasurable to the point of making you really want to live in Los Angeles, so long as you could also be young, heterosexual, and look like either of the leads. On occasion, the film is even wise, as in an extended sequence, when Gordon-Levitt attends a party in hopes of rekindling his affair with Deschanel, that splits the screen between his expectations and reality, playing out simulta­ne­ously.

Gordon-Levitt got his start on 3rd Rock from the Sun, a sitcom I seldom watched for the simple reason that, when I worked in televi­sion, I didn’t watch any. But in the films Mysterious Skin and Brick, I found him a versatile actor of great skill — and, as he demonstrates here, great charm, as well. (Imagine! A comic–romantic lead who doesn’t need to make fart jokes in order to carry the picture!) He proves himself adroit in comic dialogue, yet his strongest scenes, polar opposites in mood, are those in which he doesn’t say a word: the morning-after strut that turns into an elaborate dance number, and the aforementioned “reality” scene at the party.

Deschanel has less to do. That seems to be par for the course in rom–coms, which really seem predicated on the assumption that male audiences won’t tolerate any film, date movies included, that’s split evenly between male and female perspectives, whereas female audi­ences ostensibly will put up with anything. (Indeed, about the only way to see a rom–com in which you get more than 15 percent female perspective is to see a lesbian rom–com.) But Deschanel has an intriguing screen presence; she’s witty and beautiful, without being a typical Hollywood Barbie Doll, and you never question why Gordon-Levitt would fall for her.

Pixar’s computer-animated Up features another adorable couple, Carl and Ellie Fredricksen, and so long as it concentrates on them — the first 20 minutes of the picture, really — it’s a masterpiece. Thereafter, I lost interest: the picture lacks both visual imagination and plausible logic.

But, oh, those first 20 minutes! We see Carl and Ellie grow from childhood to old age, sharing a sweet, largely uneventful marriage, in an eloquent sequence of nearly wordless scenes. After Ellie’s death, Carl (voiced now by Ed Asner) is alone, about to be evicted from his home — until he makes one of the greatest escapes in cinema history. When those balloons burst free and hoisted the house heavenward, I didn’t regret one cent I’d paid for 3-D glasses: the scene is a vision of pure fantasy. Isn’t there some childish part of all of us that looks up at a balloon and dreams of floating off to magic lands?

Trouble is, the picture keeps going — to a jungle that’s almost identical to the one in Pixar’s The Incredibles, and similarly presided over by a crazed genius. Ho-hum. But it’s here that the screenplay makes its most unreasonable demands of us.

I’m perfectly prepared to believe that a little old man can collect enough balloons to sail his two-story house to South America. When he gets there, though, I stop believing. Carl is all about correcting the past — taking the chances, making the voyages he never did before. Now he has the chance to restore the reputation of Charles B. Muntz, his boyhood idol (Ellie’s, too, and the starting point of their relationship), after decades of derision and neglect. Yet Carl refuses to help, even risks his life in order to thwart Muntz — because of a promise made to a kid he barely knows.

I’m all in favor of Disney pictures painting a rosy portrait of cross-generational friendship. You see that in a lot of their films. Hayley Mills won over Agnes Moorehead in Pollyanna, for instance, and I didn’t complain about the plausibility. But this is going too far.

A closing word on a new film I’m reluctant to see, Julie & Julia. It’s gotten pretty good reviews, at least for the sequences that interest me most: those that concern Julia Child, the woman who inspired me to try my hand at cooking things more complex than Campbell’s Soup. Meryl Streep stars, and though I usually prefer her in lighter fare and comedies, she’s working so damned hard to impersonate Child in the clips I’ve seen that I don’t for one second think about anything other than her acting choices. The impersonation isn’t even much good. If this was what the producers were after, why didn’t they hire Danny Aykroyd? Or, for that matter, me?

Though Streep is well-known in France, Julia Child is not. I’m not sure the picture will get much distribution, so you’ve got plenty of time to see it for yourselves, then tell me whether I should bother.

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05 August 2009

Glimmerglass 2009: The Consul

The Connoisseur’s Favorite:
Joyce Castle sings a fateful lullaby.
Photograph by Richard Termine/Glimmerglass Opera

Since I began the process of moving to France — five years ago this month — it was only a question of time before I’d come to know and to appreciate Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul (1950, to his own libretto). Opera-minded friends were wont to quote Magda’s aria, “To this we’ve come,” whenever I recounted my latest travails at the French Consulate in New York or, later, at the Préfecture in Versailles. When at last I heard the score for the first time, on a 1998 recording of a live performance at the Berkshire Opera from Newport Classics, under Joel Revzen, I felt as if Menotti had been following me and taking notes. The soullessness of modern bureaucracy, the reduction to mere paperwork of the human yearning both for flight and for rest, were all become a part of my experience. (Happily, the bits about being hounded by the secret police were not.)

At Glimmerglass this season, I’ve had my first opportunity to see a fully staged production of The Consul, and the lady responsible for the introduction is a star both of the staging and of that recording, the mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle. She has appeared now in four productions of this opera, singing the Mother, and I’m grateful to check off another of her signature roles from a distinguished list.

That Joyce is one of the greatest singing actresses of our time is beyond debate among those who’ve heard her even once, but to understand what that really means, consider that, after a martini and only a little encouragement, my co-president in the Official Joyce Castle Fan Club, Darren Keith Woods, who is also general director of Fort Worth Opera, will act out her greatest hits, at length and in detail. So will I — but Darren is himself a former comprimario tenor, with a keener appreciation than mine of the artistry involved. Joyce is a connoisseur’s favorite.

Closing in: The Agent (Kerr) interrogates Magda (Citro),
while her Mother (Castle) looks on.
Photograph by Richard Termine/Glimmerglass Opera

She is entering her fortieth season as a performer, and since meeting her in 1984, I’ve made a point of hearing her whenever I can, especially at New York City Opera but also in Boston, Wilmington, and here in Cooperstown. In every performance, she finds a telling physical detail (or several) to make not only her own role but the entire work fresh and clear. In the case of the Glimmerglass Consul, she did nothing short of constructing the set that’s called for by the libretto, yet which the scenic designer (Andrew Lieberman) and stage director (Sam Helfrich) disregarded.

The Consul is a claustrophobic work, about people who want to escape but can’t: in music and text, it calls for a set that really closes in on the actors. Lieberman and Helfrich opted instead for a wide-open set that emphasizes the constant surveillance under which the characters live, and the reality that all of them — bureaucrats, would-be refugees, even the secret police — live together, in the same conditions, under the same watchful eyes. That’s all well and good, as an intellectual conceit, but it isn’t really what this opera is about.

Menotti: He dared to be tonal.

So you can imagine my disgruntlement, at first view of Lieberman’s set, and then my relief as Joyce fretted and paced, her shoulders stooped, exactly as if she were living in the cramped quarters the opera depicts. Those shoulders revealed age, too, weariness and regret. This life, in these cold conditions, under this regime, has become a burden to her. The Mother doesn’t want out — she wants only for her children to get out, and be safe, somehow, though she knows she’s powerless to help them. All by herself, Joyce created what the production team neglected. Extraordinary.

At least Helfrich and Lieberman gave us the closed door behind which the title character hides: the Consul himself is never seen, perhaps not even by his own secretary. But in some other important ways, Helfrich missed the point of this opera, and the most significant of these, I think, lies in his interpretation of the Secretary, here sung splendidly by the charming Leah Wool. The Consul’s central character, Magda Sorel, is buffeted in alternating scenes by two powerful forces: at home, by the Secret Police, and in the Consulate, by the bureaucracy (foreign, probably American). These are the two faces of state power: two different states, with two different approaches, and by dint of its officious impersonality, Menotti suggests, the consular bureaucracy is even more inhuman than the secret police. (At least the Secret Police care what happens to John, Magda’s dissident husband, even if they only want him dead.) We shouldn’t have any indication that the Secretary has real feelings, that the folks requesting visas are anything more than numbers and files to her, until her solo aria in Act III — and then it should come as a shock, because she’s been so cold up to that point.

Apparatchniks: The Agent (Kerr) and the Secretary (Wool)
meet John Sorel (Chioldi).
Photograph by Richard Termine/Glimmerglass Opera

Thus, in Act II, when the Magician (John Easterlin) finally gets his opportunity to speak with the Secretary, we should feel his desperation, first as he deploys his entire bag of tricks (literally) in an attempt to win her over, and then even more strongly as he comes up short of the necessary paperwork. “Every file not completely filled out will be refused,” the French prefects warn me, and in like fashion the Secretary dismisses the Magician. The moment should be devastating, because we know he’s been waiting, day after day, without ever advancing his cause, or even getting this far. But Wool’s Secretary has been so sympathetic already, and the Magician’s tricks both too good and too numerous, that we can’t quite grasp how badly he’s blown his chance, and the moment loses most of its impact.

Musically, the performance was much more successful. Conductor David Angus, who’s music director of Glimmerglass, made a strong case for the score, too rarely heard. Yeah, Menotti is only barely post-Puccinian in his musical language, and entirely accessible — but you know what? Puccini is very nearly the most recent opera composer to find a wide audience*, and if you want people to listen to your work, you’ll take tips from him, much as Menotti did. For several decades after World War II, this strategy was anathema to “serious” composers, but many of Menotti’s works are splendid music-theater, to which listeners will respond, and in the case of The Consul, there’s nothing pedestrian or “easy” about the message, no matter how lush and melodic the score. The work is worth performing, more so than other operas in the standard rep, and especially with the dramatic conviction that Angus brought to the job.

Prime: Angus steers his orchestra.
Photograph by Cory Weaver/Glimmerglass Opera

Melissa Citro used liquid soprano tone to create a memorable Magda. This is a fairly passive character, as operatic heroines go, who mostly pleads and waits, so that Citro’s understated acting was a gamble that didn’t quite pay off: I’d like to see more intensity throughout, and more fearful nervousness in the Consulate scenes, even when she’s only listening to other characters. Waiting around is a matter of life and death for Magda, whose loved ones will drop, one by one, over the course of the opera: the reality (albeit here only a muted implication) is that Magda herself will be next to die. I never felt that urgency, however.

Baritone Michael Chioldi, Joyce’s co-star in that Berkshire Consul, couldn’t be better as John Sorel, infusing his voice with a mixture of revolutionary fire and sheer helplessness that perfectly depict his character. As the ringleader of the Secret Police, Robert Kerr combined imposing baritone singing with looming physical menace to create a low-rent Baron Scarpia — exactly right.

Given the director’s interpretation, Wool was pitch-perfect as the Secretary, looking like Mary Richards and sounding like molten silver. Her duet with the radiant Young American Artist Eve Gigliotti, as visa recipient Vera Boronel, was a highlight, their voices blending gorgeously. Easterlin’s gleaming tenor may even be too good for the Magician; and he made so much of the popinjay dimensions of the character that to see him denied his moment of defeat was especially disappointing.

Domestic Disturbances: Castle, Chioldi, and Citro
Photograph by Richard Termine/Glimmerglass Opera

Valentina Fleer’s Anna Gomez made one yearn to hear her again in a larger role. Two more young singers, Jacqueline Noparstak and David Kravitz (Dr. Grenvil in Traviata), turned in strong performances as the Foreign Woman and Mr. Kofner, the only person who understands what she’s saying. (However, Noparstak’s Italian accent was strictly tourist trade. This raised interesting character possibilities — maybe she’s a fake! — but could be a liability in other operas.)

And what of Joyce? She sounded quite simply brilliant — forty years on, she’s very much in her prime, with warmth and power to spare. Every word rang true: she could give lessons in diction (and she does, or anyway she’s on the vocal faculty at the University of Kansas). And yet that’s merely technique. There’s probably no way to teach her feeling for a role, and in the Mother’s lullaby to her ailing grandson, a stunning showcase, so many colors combined: humor and poetry, tender affection and a curious harping on passing time and impending death, as if she knows already the baby is dead, yet can’t bring herself to say the words.

And did I mention that she built the set, too?

*Along with Richard Strauss. That Meister’s summing up of Puccini is among my favorite put-downs: “These days, every idiot knows how to orchestrate perfectly.”

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03 August 2009

Glimmerglass 2009: Dido & Aeneas

Mumford and Moore

I rounded out my weekend at Glimmerglass Opera with a matinee of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, in the premiere performance of Jonathan Miller’s production for the company. This piece, just over a single hour in length, is a great favorite of mine, a pure concentration of music and emotion, from high comedy to noblest tragedy. Inventive melodies linger just long enough to win the listener, then scurry away, to be supplanted by something sweeter still. The English text is set with such grace, reflecting natural inflections and breath patterns in speech, that in a sense it’s no surprise that Britain failed to produce another truly great opera composer for so many generations: who would dare to challenge Purcell’s mastery?

The first known performance of Dido and Aeneas was at a girls’ school, and the piece remains an excellent vehicle for young singers: in an intimate house, with its smallish orchestra, the score gives everyone a chance to shine (and, I daresay, to learn a bit about singing). Glimmerglass dug deep into its Young American Artists Program to round out an ensemble led by a couple of relative grownups — notably baritone David Adam Moore, returning to the role of Aeneas, in which I first heard him.

Heroic: Moore, with the Ensemble

The last time I heard David live, he was portraying the AIDS-stricken Pryor Walter in Peter Eötvös’ Angels in America, and calling on a suitably taut, feverish intensity that often reached high into his voice. As Aeneas, his vocal colors became plush and darkly sensual in the love scenes, yet never lost their heroic gleam — in short, David sounded like an almost completely different singer.

He was well-matched by Tamara Mumford as Dido, whose velvety warblings seemed to wrap me up in a cloak of sound; she’s drop-dead gorgeous, too, so they made a perfectly credible pair of lovers. Especially in her final aria, “When I am laid in earth,” she located a regal expression that suited the character but was denied her by the staging, depicting all the characters as a gaggle of college (or music-conservatory!) students. Curiously, the only woman in a skirt onstage wasn’t the queen but her attendant, Belinda, sung by Joélle Harvey with the delightful suggestion in her insistent coloratura that her involvement in the progress of her friends’ love affair isn’t entirely healthy.

Bad Guys: Liza Forrester, Costanzo, and Kathryn Guthrie embody evil.

The great surprise of the performance was Anthony Roth Costanzo, a countertenor playing the Sorceress who conspires against our heroes’ happiness. Looking all of 13 years old (yet unnervingly sexy), hunching his shoulders in a black hoodie, he unleashed brilliant, supple tone and lacerating, Cockney-accented menace. (All the baddies in this production employed remarkably good Cockney, in what seems to have been an attempt by Miller to inject a note of class rivalry into the story.) Costanzo won the Grand Finals of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions this year, and he’s really a talent to follow: I popped up in my seat the instant he opened his mouth. He sounds like nobody else.

The “contemporary youth” approach to the staging worked just fine, mostly, eliciting from all the singers a relaxed, honest stage deportment. Trouble is, this isn’t a story about ordinary kids: it’s about a queen who dies of heartbreak, and at some point, the staging has to leap beyond the realm of everyday life. Miller didn’t manage the trick. “It was great fun, wasn’t it?” Sir Jonathan said to me backstage afterward (not knowing me from Adam), and indeed it was fun — but apart from the musical aspects of the performance (under the elegant direction of Michael Beattie at the harpsichord), the show was never ennobling or transcendent, as it should and quite easily could have been.

Mumford, Moore, and Harvey

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