31 December 2011

‘Enchanted’ for New Year’s

Ding! Dong! The Witch Is Hawt!
Joyce DiDonato as Sycorax

This afternoon I’m listening to an archival broadcast of Die Fledermaus from 1951, at the Metropolitan Opera. Among the many Golden Era opera singers in the cast, we’ll hear Jack Gilford in his legendary turn as Frosch the Jailer. It’s a New Year’s Eve party, and great, giddy fun of the sort that only opera houses can achieve.

This year’s New Year’s party at the Met is a new work, Jeremy Sams’ The Enchanted Island, a pastiche of two Shakespeare plays and several Baroque composers, starring some of the brightest of the singers of our own Golden Era. I saw the final dress rehearsal, after which I complained so bitterly about Sams’ lyrics that I may have slighted the reasons that, in fact, I had a great time at the show.

So, as a preview of what Met audiences will experience this evening — as an invitation of sorts to the New Year’s party — here’s a rundown of what I really liked about The Enchanted Island.

Jack Gilford and Patrice Munsel in Fledermaus.

The Look of the Show

Director Phelim McDermott, set designer Julian Crouch, costume designer Kevin Pollard, and graphic designers 59 Productions are seeking 21st-century solutions to the challenges of 18th-century stagecraft. To put it mildly, this is something that more producers of Baroque works ought to do — whereas in most productions, almost nobody even tries.

Baroque opera was meant to be as dazzling visually as it was vocally, packing in elaborate costumes, fancy sets that did stuff, gods and monsters, machines and explosions! (And, of course, big hats with feathers.) Everything was meant to be attention-grabbing and otherworldly, the sort of entertainment that an 18th-century audience would go out of its way to enjoy.

Trouble is, that stuff is expensive, and nowadays, Baroque opera isn’t a guaranteed success at the box-office. Thus we keep getting stripped-down productions with little to no set, modern-day costumes, and as little heroism and divinity as possible. We put up with it, because we’re lucky enough to live in an era when truly great singers of this music walk among us. But I’ve very seldom encountered a physical production that even attempted to rival the musical razzle-dazzle, and really only the Met’s old Rinaldo (shared with Houston Grand Opera and a Canadian company I’ll have to look up) came anywhere near the 18th-century aesthetic.

Topic: Kansans do Handel really well. Discuss among yourselves.
Ramey as Argante.

When Samuel Ramey, as Argante, made his entrance on a chariot pulled by a smoke-puffing dragon, he looked about ten feet tall even without the elaborate turban — and then he opened his mouth and sang like Samuel Ramey. I knew I was in good hands.

The Met’s Enchanted Island uses computer graphics and ingenuity, mixed with a bit of old-fashioned stagecraft (like throwing glittering confetti on people when they’re put under a spell) and imagery (the proscenium, Prospero’s cell, and Sycorax’s cave are meant to look like antique woodcuts), to create a show that feels true to its own nature. (Compare it with the new Faust.)

Do I wish some of the designs were prettier? Yes. Am I relieved that this isn’t just another Gelb-era flat box of bold solid colors and computerized gizmos? Also yes. It’s a step in the right direction.

A scene design from Enchanted Island

And because The Enchanted Island is based primarily on Shakespeare’s Tempest, the aesthetics matter. Shakespeare wrote his play hoping to capitalize on the new taste for courtly masques. The masque is the true spiritual progenitor of Baroque opera. Visually, McDermott’s production ties these aesthetics together quite smartly.

The Shakespeare of the Show

Sams has constructed a neat fusion of two plays into a whole that mostly makes sense. When he encounters dramaturgical potholes, it’s because he’s tried to add something: Prospero’s interest in forgiveness arrives much too early in Enchanted Island and makes it seem as if he’s been watching too much Dr. Phil; and likewise Neptune’s strange sort of midlife crisis (refusing to use his own divine power until Ariel believes in him) and his interest in environmentalism. (When he starts singing about pollution, you’ll be baffled: his undersea palace is sparkling clean.)

But I especially admired the way Sams introduces Miranda and Caliban into the Midsummer shenanigans. The characters interact appropriately and satisfyingly — Caliban even becomes a sort of surrogate Bottom. We’re instantly taken back to the Shakespeare productions of Handel’s day and age, when textual fidelity didn’t matter so long as the show was good. And this is in keeping, too, with the Met’s intentions behind the piece: to celebrate New Year’s. Nobody dies in Tempest or Midsummer, and everyone reconciles. Auld acquaintance ain’t forgot, but we move on to something that promises to be much nicer.

Ariel (Danielle de Niese) plays like Puck, mixing up the lovers.

It’s worth noting, too, that the strongest lyrics in the show are found in Caliban’s aria “If the air should hum with noises,” which paraphrases the Shakespearean Caliban’s haunting speech “Be not afear’d! The isle is full of noises.”

The Sound of the Music

There are many kinds of Baroque fans. Some are purists, and they’re the ones who will tell you it’s jarring and blasphemous to mix the works of Handel and Rameau, of Leclair and Vivaldi. But honestly, there’s no pleasing them, so why bother trying?

I am merely the sort of Baroque enthusiast who owns multiple recordings of Ariodante — and who loves theater. I’m old enough to remember so-called early-music specialists such as Christopher Hogwood, who treated the music as if with tweezers, dissecting rather than conducting, and the result was dry, bloodless performances.

William Christie, by contrast, may conduct period-instrument ensembles, but he’s pure electricity. He didn’t take up the cause of French Baroque music because it was a good career opportunity — nobody else was doing it — he did it because he feels passionately about this art form, and you hear that in his conducting.

Moreover, you hear it in the performances of the people who work with him. The first time I heard Joyce DiDonato in Handel, he was at the helm (Hercules at the Palais Garnier, in 2004), and she put on a simply staggering show, rich in psychological nuance and dazzling in vocal effects.

David Daniels as Prospero

With the countertenor David Daniels on board, you know The Enchanted Island is seaworthy. Daniels was the first countertenor I heard who really understood what it means to be the hero of a Baroque opera, and that dramatic fire fills his singing voice.

The Kids in the Show

Well, “kids” may be a relative term, but with the New York City Opera effectively assassinated and buried, the Met will bear a greater responsibility than ever for grooming young talent — American, when possible. I daresay it’s time to reexamine the ancient dream of a “Mini Met.”

The Enchanted Island gives several singers a terrific spotlight, starting with Anthony Roth Costanzo (as Ferdinand), the countertenor whose skyrocket is only just starting to take off. A Princeton-educated polymath, he’s scarily smart, boy-band cute, and a thrilling vocalist.


I do wish Costanzo had more to do in this particular production, but he and the other “young lovers” in the company are mightily impressive: Lisette Oropesa (Miranda), Layla Claire (Helena), Elizabeth DeShong (Hermia), Paul Appleby (Demetrius), and Elliot Madore (Lysander) combined radiant voices and first-rate comedic chops. Also, an appealing quartet, commenting a couple of times on the action, featured Ashley Emerson, Monica Yunus, Philippe Castagner, and Tyler Simpson.

The strength of all of their performances speaks well of training grounds such as the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, and it will speak even better of the Met if the company keeps finding good parts for these singers. Yes, let’s start looking for that Mini Met, please.

The Divo

There’s an undeniable, irresistibly satisfying charge that goes up and down your spine when Plácido Domingo makes his entrance as Neptune. To see him in his undersea palace, surrounded by a chorus of mer-people, some of whom are “swimming” in midair behind him, is its own kind of fantasy. And then he starts singing.

At an age when other tenors have long since hung up their shields and helmets (or make you wish they had), Domingo still wields a flexible, clean sound with its trademark burnished-gold tone. Is Baroque really what we expect to hear from him? Of course not — but he sounds terrific, and he’s such a smart musician that he finds a style that strikes you as absolutely right. How else would a god sound?

Costume designs for Neptune (with Domingo’s face pasted in) and the mermaids.

The Fun of It All

As an actress, Joyce seems liberated (one of her favorite words) by the role of Sycorax. I was reminded of the Let’s Pretend games of childhood, when you’d grab the kitchen broom and run around the back yard, “flying” and playing the witch. Stooped and dressed in haggy rags, she’s having a high old time, especially in the comedic romance scenes, in which Sycorax is constantly meddling, perfectly in harmony with the silly business around her.

Ad yet Joyce is capable, a few scenes later, of eliciting real sympathy in a poignant lament she sings, by way of apology, to Caliban, the son she’s manipulated (for his own good, at least as she sees it). She sounds amazing, of course, sustaining long lines and spinning off filigree, but to me what’s really striking is her ability to weave the many strands of her character into one seamless, credible, (vocally) shimmering fabric.

By the evening’s end, Sycorax has gone glamorous, much like the Witch in Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Joyce wears a golden gown with cleavage to make you gasp — and remember that, yes, Italian men do love her. Plus, it’s she who gets the pièce de résistance, the big feathered hat I’d been waiting for. Also a big feathered cape.

Then Domingo took her hand, and I said, “Yes! That’s opera, baby!”

So, go! It’s a good time, and what’s more, the Met is trying something different, and it’s worthy of our support and encouragement, into the New Year and beyond.

The Enchanted Island
Metropolitan Opera
31 December 2011 – 30 January 2012
For more information, click here.
HD Simulcast 21 January

Not just HD, but 3D? (Namely, DiDonato, Domingo, and Daniels.)

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29 December 2011

L’Isola Incantata

Castaways: David Daniels (Professor), Luca Pisaroni (Skipper), Anthony Roth Costanzo (Gilligan), Lisette Oropesa (Mary Ann), Layla Claire (Ginger), Plácido Domingo (Mr. Howell), and Joyce DiDonato (Mrs. Howell).

There’s so much to recommend The Enchanted Island, a new pastiche opera that will have its premiere at the Met on New Year’s Eve. It marks a reunion between Joyce DiDonato, who makes so much of my life not only bearable but special, and William Christie, the conductor who, by dint of his pioneering revival of French Baroque music, is one of my primary cultural heroes. Joyce and Christie collaborated on Handel’s Hercules, which I saw at the Palais Garnier, several years ago, on one of the great nights of my career as an audience.

Add to these two wonderful artists such estimable colleagues as David Daniels, Luca Pisaroni, Lisette Oropesa, and Anthony Roth Costanzo, plus some singers I hadn’t heard before, including the especially impressive Layla Claire and Elliot Madore. Then toss in Plácido Domingo, treated like the divine force he truly is, and it was a sure thing I’d float out of the Met on a fluffy Baroque cloud of Handel and Vivaldi and Rameau and all the other composers whose music is so thrillingly performed in this opera. I attended the final dress rehearsal, and by all means, you should rush to buy tickets.

The tiny ship was tossed…

That’s not to say I don’t have reservations. Jeremy Sams has constructed an ingenious framework for all this fabulousness, fusing elements of Shakespeare’s Tempest and Midsummer Night’s Dream, sometimes with winning comedy. Unfortunately, Enchanted Island also features English lyrics by somebody else called Jeremy Sams (can’t possibly be the same guy); these sound as if he wrote them like Mad Libs and using a rhyming dictionary. Again and again, a character steps forward to sing, “I feel [blank].” Now, the original arias don’t contain great poetry, perhaps, but at least their authors were acquainted with metaphor and other literary values: for instance, when Julius Caesar rescues Cleopatra, she doesn’t sing, “I feel happy,” she sings about a ship, battered by storms but arriving safely in the harbor.

Many, perhaps most, of Sams’ lyrics are jaw-droppingly, head-slappingly, Pinth-Garnell bad. The low point is Miranda’s entrance aria, in which she tells Prospero, “I have no words for this feeling I am feeling,” which is not only a flat statement that would embarrass a third-rate pop tunesmith, it’s also an admission that Sams ran out of ideas.

You may be tempted to do what I did, which is to set your MetTitles® to German (Italian and French aren’t available) to distract yourself; or you may choose do what Stendhal would have done, which is to forget the words altogether and make up your own story.

Ultimately, it’s not too early for the Met to start planning for the revival, and I urge one and all to do the right thing: sing in Italian. At least the rhyming will be easier. But while they’re at it, the Met could simplify Sams’ plot — five acts’ worth of business crammed into two very, very, very long acts — and make The Enchanted Island even easier for contemporary audiences to follow, with most of the same cast and just a few minor adjustments. My version is entitled L’Isola Incantata, ossia Gilligan.

Sit right back, and you’ll hear a tale….


There’s a crisis on the island! Mr. and Mrs. Thurston Howell III are fighting! Mr. Howell (Plácido Domingo) continues to live in splendor, while Mrs. Howell (Joyce DiDonato) dresses in rags and schemes to murder her husband, possibly using the poison that a Headhunter (Danielle DeNiese) has left behind.

With his vast understanding of Psychology 101, the Professor (David Daniels) acts as go-between, counseling the couple but secretly hoping to marry Mrs. Howell himself, since they’ve been on this island a long time and he can see that Ginger (Layla Claire) and Mary Ann (Lisette Oropesa) will never sleep with him.

Meanwhile, the Skipper (Luca Pisaroni) and Gilligan (Anthony Roth Costanzo) are making one last-ditch attempt to repair the Minnow and get off the island. Just then, Jungle Boy (Elliot Madore), a TV actor, arrives on the island to do research for his new adventure series. Can he rescue the Castaways?

There’s high jinks and suspense galore, and also some terrific singing. In the Act III finale, the Howells are reconciled, and Joyce gets to wear a pretty dress and a hat with big feathers, which is not only what Mrs. Howell would wear, it’s also the costuming hallmark of any decent Baroque pastiche opera.

Mr. Gelb, you know where to find me!

Here, the cast listens to a Saturday afternoon radio broadcast.

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26 December 2011

Other Christmas Stories

I knew already that guns and Christmas were a volatile combination.

On the worst morning of my brother’s life, we awoke with a start and scurried from our beds toward the living room of my grandparents’ house in Goliad. Christmas! Who knew what treasures and delights were in store for us at the foot of the twinkling tree? But there was our grandfather in the doorway, shaking his head sadly.

“Boys,” he said, “I have bad news. I heard a noise in the night: something was on the roof. I got up to see what was the matter, and I saw a burglar coming out of the fireplace. So I shot him.”

Yes, Pa had shot Santa, who perished on the spot and was taken away before he had a chance to distribute the presents. Solemnly, our grandfather announced, “There won’t be a Christmas this year.”

If I live to be 100, I won’t forget the expression of horror and outrage on my brother’s little face. He was about 5 at the time, and he couldn’t contain his distress. Pa didn’t mean to be cruel, and as soon as he saw Linc’s reaction, he tried valiantly to make it right — it was all a joke, the presents were there, all was right with the universe. His reassurances flowed freely. But he couldn’t stop laughing, and really, the damage was done: emotional scarring for life.

I’ve been thinking about that morning as I watch a movie unspool — again and again — on TV. The gifts are opened, the big holiday meal prepared and eaten and well on its way to digestion, and the annual marathon of Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story (from 1983) has commenced its umpteenth iteration of the day.

This means that I have commenced the perennial philosophical inquiry as to why, in a movie in which so many period details are so right, Melinda Dillon couldn’t be persuaded to wear her hair in a way that didn’t look like the cover of Redbook, circa 1978. Seriously. Maybe she didn’t want to wear a wig, or cut her hair, but couldn’t she have pulled it back? Darren McGavin is at least two decades too old to play the Old Man (the nickname is meant to be ironic, not accurate), but nobody played beleaguered fury quite so well, and I give the filmmakers a pass on that one.

Melinda Dillon and her hair contemplate the Major Award.
With Peter Billingsley (Ralphie) and Ian Petrella (Randy).

I was a Shepherd fan already when the movie came out. In my teens I’d listened to his late-night radio show, which always sounded so terribly sophisticated, as if he held a highball in one hand and a microphone in the other.* I’d read his collected stories, with titillating titles like Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss. Many of those “other disasters” had been published first in Playboy, which heightened my sense that there was something adult and even subversive about them. By the time A Christmas Story opened, I’d even visited Higbee’s, the Cleveland department store that dominates the opening montage, and that’s where Ralphie meets Santa.

Thus versed (thoroughly, or so I believed) in the master’s œuvre, I was somewhat disappointed when A Christmas Story came out: it’s a kid’s movie. The big screen effectively washes away Shepherd’s most acerbic humor, and I missed it. I still do. Several of his other short stories had been adapted, somewhat more tartly, for American Playhouse on PBS, and in the course of filming, Shepherd was said to have taken aside the actor playing the Old Man and to have whispered, “In three years, you’re going to walk out on the family.”

Jean Shepherd:
On the radio, he always sounded as if he were speaking
from some secret, still place inside your head.

The rosy nostalgia of A Christmas Story has no room for such dark undertones, though they would help to explain why it’s Dad who breaks down and buys Ralphie the present he craves. Set in 1939 or shortly thereafter (to judge by the presence of Wizard of Oz characters in Higbee’s), the movie doesn’t even acknowledge the Great Depression, historical context that could lend poignancy to Ralphie’s yearning for such an expensive toy, and to the Old Man’s persistent attempts to strike it rich — or at least to win a Major Award — by entering cockamamie contests.

So be it. The movie earned Shepherd’s seal of approval — it’s he who narrates the tale — and brought him the greatest mainstream success of his career. What’s more, over the years the movie has proven its mettle as a trigger to nostalgia for our own Christmases. Heck, since the movie is playing in the background on TV a gazillion times a day, we’ve probably attached nostalgia to it, in and of itself.

Our own memories are unlikely to assemble themselves quite so tidily as Shepherd’s do: in fact, the incidents in the movie are taken from several different Shepherd stories, not all of them Christmas-related. Watching the movie, I begin to construct my own memoir of the night Santa was gunned down, a true-life incident that’s pretty clearly Shepherdesque, and other Christmas memories soon begin to emerge.

I wasn’t the sort of boy who wanted a BB gun, not least since I was mindful that my great-grandfather really did have his eye put out with one (fired by someone else), and was blinded for life. As an adult, I’ve forgotten the presents I didn’t receive, but many of the ones I did get are fresh in my memory. Consider the Disney castle with its collection of tiny plastic Disneykins, a few of whom actually survived Christmas morning. (Bambi’s tiny legs were the first casualty, but Huey — or Dewey — or Louie — lived past my college graduation.) How I wanted that castle! How thrilled I was when I got it! And I was still playing with it, or bits of it, years and years later.

Disneykins. The castle (clear plastic, with little trees, a pirate’s cave, and other accessories) came with about 50 characters, from Snow White to Pecos Bill, in individual boxes like these.

Other memories are more fragmentary: the year Linc had a part in the school Christmas pageant, but I had to miss it, because I’d already graduated from preschool to elementary; the way our mother used to sing along with Christmas carols on the car radio, keeping time with her foot on the accelerator; the way our grandmother each year assigned me the task of setting up the centerpiece (a scrawny Santa in a wooden sleigh, with a team of six silver reindeer hitched by a gold ribbon) as if it were a mission of national security — and it may have been. The procession of aunts and uncles, who resolutely called Linc by my name and me by his. The way the kitchen smelled while Bessie and my grandmother were cooking. And so on.

Very often I’ve spent the Christmases of my adult years in trying to pretend the holiday is just another day. It’s hard to maintain any Yuletide traditions at all when you’re childless, godless, far from home, and very often in somebody else’s home for the holidays. Complete avoidance is the only sure way to keep from feeling sorry for yourself.

This weekend, though, A Christmas Story virtually forced me to keep the season bright. I’m not sure that’s what Jean Shepherd planned, but it’s no small achievement.

Little did Santa Claus suspect that, even then,
our grandfather was stalking him.

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23 December 2011

Kaurismäki’s ‘Le Havre’

André Vilms and Blondin Miguel

Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre is such a gift-box of delights that I’m almost hesitant to tell you anything about it, but for fear that you’ll miss it altogether. (The movie continues to run at New York’s AFI Center through 3 January.) The Finnish film director, working for the first time in France, treats a subject that is torn from the headlines, politically sensitive, and not unrelated to his own status: illegal immigration, the “sans papiers” and “clandestins” who periodically dominate French discourse, until they’re forgotten yet again.

Torn from the headlines: Blondin Miguel as Idrissa

Kaurismäki focuses on a little boy from Gabon (Blondin Miguel) who’s stranded in the eponymous city, tracked down by a wily detective (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) and reliant on the goodwill of a working-class French neighborhood. If you need any confirmation that Kaurismäki, a foreigner himself, is welcome in the notoriously insular community of French cinema, you get it soon enough, when no less a figure than Jean-Pierre Léaud shows up. Léaud was Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel, of course, an icon of the seventh art, but he doesn’t make many movies anymore. His participation, even in an unsympathetic role (arguably the only one in the picture), lends Kaurismäki’s freshman effort the greatest seal of approval you could want.

Your own approval is virtually guaranteed, from the loopy humor to the eccentric characters and a story that, despite its outward reserve, is frankly heartwarming. It’s a mystery how anybody can take illegal immigration and turn it into the feel-good picture of the year, without a second’s worth of cloying or grandstanding — but that’s just what Aki Kaurismäki has done.

“Miracles do happen”: Vilms and Outinen

The great wonder of Le Havre is not that Kaurismäki finds so much visual beauty in run-down neighborhoods, ports, and bars, in France as in Finland, but how well his patented style — so much of which seems to be based on a particularly Finnish repertoire of quirks and deadpan — works in a French context, with mostly French actors. The acting in a Kaurismäki movie is deliberate, about half a beat off the rhythms of those of any French movie, lending each word and gesture a certain artificiality, yes, but guaranteeing that you’ll pay attention. And here, as in The Man without a Past, Kaurismäki shows us a marginalized community that looks after its own: very rarely, and perhaps only in Robert Guédiguian’s Marius et Jeannette (from 1997, it also co-starred Darroussin), have I seen the like in contemporary French cinema, a sort of updated, European, unabashedly Socialist Frank Capra sensibility by which, when given the chance, people turn out better at heart than you first expect them to be.

Volcanic activity: Vilms and Outinen

Kaurismäki has brought along his favorite actress, Kati Outinen, whose long, weak-chinned, dispassionate face and comparably flat line readings uplift his films so cunningly. At first she doesn’t seem to be acting at all, much less feeling anything, but as you watch, you sense a vibrant, passionate, beautiful woman within: it’s underplaying as volcanic activity on a microscopic level. Here she’s given the name Arletty, a tribute to the great actress of the Golden Age of French cinema and another assertion of Kaurismäki’s fitness to work here.*

Protagonist meets antagonist: Vilms and Darroussin. The detective is costumed like a character from a graphic novel, but he’s decidedly three-dimensional.

Arletty’s husband, Marcel, is our protagonist: a failed writer turned itinerant bootblack, he finds and shelters young Idrissa and tries to help him on his way to London, where the boy’s mother is waiting. (Typically for this film’s melting-pot conception of immigration, she works in a Chinese laundry.) He’s played by André Vilms with the face and florid voice of a matinée idol gone to seed, more theatrical than the other actors in the film and yet not discordantly so: it’s a lovely performance, beautifully matched by Miguel’s sangfroid.

Of course, you can’t prevail on your own — or at least, you can’t in a Kaurismäki movie. Marcel enlists the aid of his neighbors, including the soft-hearted boulangère Yvette (Evelyne Didi); the tougher, wiser Claire (Elina Salo), who runs the local bar; a fellow bootblack who, it turns out, is also an illegal immigrant (Quoc Dung Nguyen); and an Arab grocer (François Monnie). Their sense of community solidarity is exemplary, and intended to be, I suspect, in a country where politicians from Marine LePen to Nicolas Sarkozy continually seek to exploit xenophobia for their own purposes. But even though Marcel’s last name is Marx, Kaurismäki never mentions politics at all.

He sent her husband up the river, but what’s a little thing like that between friends? Darroussin and Salo.

Similarly, although Darroussin devotes much, if not quite all, of his career to projects that promote his left-wing political views, very seldom do I feel he’s hitting me over the head with agitprop. One reason is that he so often conveys the quick play of his critical intelligence, and the complexity of any situation. As the black-hatted police detective, he reminds us that an antagonist isn’t necessarily a villain, and he’s having a great time here — as is Léaud, though to tell you much more about him would risk spoiling the picture for you.

And that is the last thing I want to do. If you’re in New York, hurry to the IFC Center; if you’re not, pounce on this movie the minute it comes near. By remaining true to himself, Kaurismäki has made something fresh and exciting and somehow thoroughly French. It’s a movie to savor and to prize.

Miguel, with Laika — who also gets star billing in the picture.
That should tell you something about Kaurismäki’s sensibility.

*Among Arletty’s many great films is Marcel Carné’s Hôtel du Nord (1938), another study of a down-and-out French neighborhood and the colorful characters who live there.

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20 December 2011

Kindly Angel Helps NYU Professor Repent for Giving James Franco a ‘D’

Santana (center) at the press conference, with members of his family.

NEW YORK CITY -- A contrite José Angel Santana should never have given actor James Franco a “D” in his graduate course, the former New York University professor told reporters today, saying, “I never realized the mistake I was making, the consequences that my thoughtless behavior might have for millions of moviegoers and the people who read New York Magazine.” Santana has alleged in a lawsuit that he was fired by NYU in retaliation for Franco’s low grade.

According to Santana, he was visited during the night of December 18 by a guardian angel (second class) named Clarence Oddbody, who told him, “You’ve been given a great gift, José: a chance to live on the same planet as James Franco.”

Santana with his guardian angel, Clarence Oddbody (left).

Oddbody went on to show Santana what the world would be like if James Franco didn’t get straight “A”s in all of his many graduate programs, and if he were, instead, an ordinary actor who made ordinary movies like Annapolis and Eat Pray Love instead of Howl and The Broken Tower.

“Even my hometown of Bedford Falls became a nightmare vision of cruelty and self-interest, all because of what I’d done to James Franco,” Santana said. “Still, I didn’t hit rock-bottom until I saw lovely Mary Bailey, who’s a hardworking reporter for New York Magazine. Without James Franco to write about, she would be a lonely, repressed spinster librarian. Actually handling books! She even wore eyeglasses! Oh, the horror. The horror.”

Big man on campuses

Franco attended only two out of 14 classes in Santana’s one-semester course. The star of such films as Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Pineapple Express, Franco recently became eligible to marry any man in New York State.

Santana has brought a lawsuit against NYU in connection with his firing. He alleges that a tacit reward system operates at the school, whereby professors who give Franco good grades receive acting and directing jobs in Franco’s projects. Beyond this, Santana says, graffiti in the faculty men’s room advertises lavish sexual favors from an unnamed Franco fan who is willing to do anything at all to see his idol succeed.

“But seriously, what was I thinking?” Santana said. “He’s James Freakin’ Franco. He doesn’t need to show up to class — he already knows everything! This is a guy who can make Your Highness and Tristan + Isolde — and still have a career. Really, I ought to be taking lessons from him.”

No Gucci Loafer: Franco is enrolled in several graduate programs, while pursuing his career as an actor, writer, director, producer, artist, model, rapper, and certified public accountant.

At the press conference, Santana was joined by dozens of his closest friends and neighbors, who sang “Auld Lang Syne” with him and gave him the money they’ve been saving for a divorce, if ever they got a husband.

Santana said he was optimistic, and his daughter Zuzu concurred: “Teacher says, ‘Every time a bell rings, José Angel gets his job back.’ Isn’t that right, Daddy?”
UPDATE: NYU registrar Henry F. Potter has told reporters that, because Santana is no longer a member of the faculty, it is now too late for him to change Franco’s grade to an “A.” “Look at Santana!” Potter said. “He used to be so cocky. He was going to go out and conquer the world. He once called me a warped, frustrated, old man! What is he but a warped, frustrated young man? A miserable little professor crawling in here on his hands and knees and begging for help. Well, happy New Year to him — in community college!”

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A New ‘Faust’ at the Met: Le Docteur Atomique

Pape, I can hear you: Méphistophélès sings of the Golden Calf.

By rights the headline of Saturday night’s performance of Gounod’s Faust at the Metropolitan Opera should have been the house debut of conductor Pierre Vallet, an auspicious occasion in itself and a promising display of bench strength in a company recently shaken by the declining health of the once-indefatigable James Levine. The Met needs good conductors right now, and on the strength of this performance, it’s got a new one to call upon.

But in the event, it was an accident that made the news: during Act III, the stalwart mezzo-soprano Wendy White, as Marthe, dropped some eight feet through a gap between a backstage platform and one of the galleries that flank the set, designed (if that’s the right word for it) by Robert Brill. Bass René Pape signaled to Vallet to stop, then tenor Jonas Kaufmann voiced that command, and Pape said, “Curtain! Curtain!” (A useful reminder that cool-headed professionalism extends beyond showing up on time and performing well.) There followed an impromptu intermission lasting about 45 minutes, before the show resumed, with another reliable favorite, Theodora Hanslowe, stepping in for White, who was taken to the hospital as a precaution. (She’s reported to be doing fine.) The accident is just one more reason to hate Des McAnuff’s Eurotrash-wannabe production, which has generated considerable debate in New York since it opened last month.

Troupers: Mezzos Jane Bunnell and Maria Zifchak (top),
Theodora Hanslowe and Wendy White (below) are among
the best-loved residents of Opera World.
(Just ask their colleagues!)
Photo by Dario Acosta for Opera News.

The fact that European audiences are obliged to watch stagings more arbitrary than McAnuff’s is cold comfort to the Met’s audience, admittedly conservative and accustomed to more luxurious settings than the voice-swallowing warehouse interior that Brill and McAnuff provided. Little touches — such as Faust’s praising Nature (leading into “Salut! Demeure chaste et pure”) while addressing a plumbing fixture (a laboratory sink that doubled as a holy-water font) — probably go over most people’s heads. And it must be said that the vision McAnuff imposed on the work isn’t as outlandish as, say, the stuff Calixto Bieito has thrown onstage, like the Ballo in which Renato sings “Eri tu” while sitting on the crapper. (Speaking of plumbing fixtures.)

McAnuff sets his Faust in the first half of the 20th century: Valentin and Wagner march off to World War I, and Faust (who is a scientist, after all) has something to do with the atomic bomb, which may belong to Méphistophélès, although Faust has already got one of his own when we first see him. The story’s themes of temptation and power are thus linked to our own times, and McAnuff has said that he was inspired by the late Jacob Bronowski (best known in the U.S. for The Ascent of Man), who renounced a distinguished career in physics after seeing the destruction caused by the bomb at Hiroshima. Fine. Faust renounces science, too. But what do you do with all this, and is Gounod’s Faust the right vehicle for your ideas? Is there anything in this opera that will sustain video of a nuclear explosion?

Gounod’s Faust is not Goethe’s (to the point that Gounod wanted to call his opera Marguerite instead); and while some works reward directors who return to the source material, this is not one of that kind. The principal philosophical aim of this opera is to affirm traditional Roman Catholic notions of sin and redemption — period. Gounod isn’t out to make us think, and he doesn’t seek to shock or titillate us (as his contemporary Offenbach would have done), which is why his Walpurgisnacht scene is about as racy as an ice-cream social. His Faust is designed to preach to the choir, if you will, engineered to suit a conservative, bourgeois audience that had ample reason to be comfortable with the status quo in Paris under Napoléon III. Which is to say, an audience not unlike that of the Metropolitan Opera in present-day New York.

High-Church Ritual: Marguerite is redeemed,
while a flock of lab-coated angels looks on.
When Susan Graham sang this role in Robert LePage’s staging of the Berlioz version of the story, she had to climb a ladder the height of the Met stage.

That set-up gives a director plenty of leeway, actually: what is the disruptive force in our present-day society, and what is the established order? What signifies temptation, and what signifies redemption? What are the tensions between them? And so on. The music itself will permit you to go only so far, however: it’s pretty, and intended to be, even when it’s depicting infanticide. If you’re going to try to explore any outside, unpretty ideas — such as nuclear weapons — then you’ve got to try to reconcile your ideas with Gounod’s score. I saw scant evidence that McAnuff recognized the real challenge, much less rose to it. Really, it seemed as if he spent the whole production wishing he’d been asked to direct Doctor Atomic instead of Faust.*

Vallet at least had a firm hand on what he could get away with, and he delivered a polished, flavorful yet absolutely faithful account of the score. Even when I found myself wanting a little more idiosyncrasy — more character in the soldier’s chorus, for example, where we might profit from the sense that testosterone, patriotism, and bloodlust are boiling under the surface — Vallet kept his cool. The melodies came swirling up like pure mountain springs, and for all that the military numbers were rousing, they couldn’t match for force and majesty the High Church chorale that greets Marguerite’s ascent into Heaven.

Pierre Vallet

A onetime physics student himself, Pierre Vallet conducted Faust in Barcelona earlier this fall (a debut at the Gran Teatre del Liceu) and assisted in the musical preparation for the current run at the Met, where he’s been on the conducting staff for 15 years. Vociferous friends greeted his arrival at the podium on Saturday, and he displayed remarkable poise all evening, even when the overenthusiastic crowd began cheering Kaufmann’s star turn in “Salut! Demeure,” well before the orchestra had finished. Vallet turned to the violins, shrugged, and grinned as if to say, “What’re you gonna do?”

Kaufmann’s burly, baritonal tenor voice made this Faust quite intriguing (it doesn’t hurt that he’s good-looking and a fine actor, too), and while I missed a certain visceral thrill in his high notes, he sounded terrific. This is one media darling who deserves the acclaim. Kaufmann attempted a few vocal effects that probably would have worked better in a different acoustic environment: as it was, the vast, empty set swallowed many of his soft-singing effects, especially in Act I.

Pape is one of those singers you can tell right now is going to be remembered as a titan, in generations yet to come. He was having a high old time as Méphistophélès, and between his wit and the cut of his suit, it seemed almost as if Alec Baldwin were playing the role (and I will now look at Jack Donaghy as a more diabolical character). Gounod’s score, which Pape has sung many times before, is catnip to him, and his singing was as confident and stylish as his acting; his French diction is sterling.

Dapper: Kaufmann & Pape

Marthe is a gem of a role, a generous reward for mezzos exactly like White and Hanslowe, seasoned pros with comic flair and vocal character: both ladies know exactly how to score points with every phrase and gesture here. White was about three lines shy of the end of her big Act II scene when she fell, so that Hanslowe didn’t have much opportunity to strut her stuff, but still, the Saturday audience can say with pride that they heard two top-notch Marthes.

Baritone Russell Braun warmed to the role of Valentin, surprisingly self-effacing in Act II but pure fire in the duel and his death scene in Act IV. A singer of remarkable taste and intelligence, he rose here to thrilling heights. Jonathan Beyer towered over the rest of the cast and sang attractively as Wagner, Valentin’s sidekick, here depicted as mere cannon-fodder. Mezzo Michèle Losier looked terrific as the boy Sièbel, and though her stage deportment struck me as too girlish, she sang “Dites-lui” with the right vibrant impetuosity.**

Poplavskaya & Kaufmann

Soprano Marina Poplavskaya sang Marguerite, and it’s impossible to avoid suspicion that she was cast primarily on the basis of her looks: vocally, she was far from her comfort zone, with high notes especially taxing both to her and to her listeners. There was never a moment when she won me over, as she did in Don Carlo last season: I really felt she was in over her head, and just by opening their mouths, Kaufmann and Pape wiped up the floor with her. That in turn threw off the balance of the opera, which is, after all, about Marguerite. What I heard Saturday was an opera about Méphistophélès and Faust.

But there’s no denying, either, that physically Poplavskaya was charming, and any sopranos who inherit this production will be hard-pressed to match either her willowy figure (exquisite in Paul Tazewell’s costumes) or her stamina when climbing umpteen flights of stairs into Heaven.

McAnuff’s production makes use of video projections — becoming something of a signature of Met stagings under the Peter Gelb administration. To this audience, they make the set look remarkably flatter and less interesting, but in close-up pictures like this one (or like a high-definition simulcast screening), they do look pretty cool.

*NOTE: It’s interesting that the same week that saw me recalling Des McAnuff’s Big River so fondly also found me dismayed by his Faust. You win some, you lose some.

**A staple of the master classes and recitals at the Festival International du Chant Lyrique in Canari, Corsica, “Dites-lui” makes an entirely different impact when sung in its original context, and I admired it afresh on Saturday. Sièbel is an excitable boy, and keeps interrupting himself, frequently distracted even while he’s obsessing over Marguerite. It’s an ingenious aria.

POSTSCRIPT: Back in the day, blonde sopranos really knew how to sing Gounod. Here’s Tintin’s friend Bianca Castafiore, the “Milanese nightingale,” whose entire repertoire consisted of nothing but the Jewel Song.

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17 December 2011

The Barihunks Calendar

David Adam Moore and Wes Mason kick off the new year.

The phenomenon of the sexy baritone isn’t new, but it got a burst of energy over the past couple of decades, as singers started hitting the gym more and strutting their stuff on the opera stage — until we’ve come to expect the pecs in the spectacle. Nowadays it’s unthinkable that the leads in Britten’s Billy Budd or Bizet’s Pearl Fishers will keep their shirts on, and rare is the Don Giovanni who doesn’t give us a dose of skin. Factor in that a number of these guys are quite good-looking in the face department, too, and you’ve given husbands across America a new reason to complain when their wives want to go to the opera.

Stage director Francesca Zambello is believed to have coined the term “barihunk” to describe the phenomenon of the shirtless singer — a phenomenon she did much to instigate, often with the baritone Nathan Gunn. Now there’s an entire website devoted to barihunks, and the blogger has collected some of his favorite pictures to create a 2012 calendar, proceeds from which enable him to make donations: the first beneficiary was Portland Opera Studio, and the second is the Seagle Music Colony, run by Fort Worth Opera’s own Darren Keith Woods. I approve wholeheartedly — that’s why I’m spreading the news — even as I admit I can’t quite get into the spirit.

Überbarihunk Gunn in Pearl Fishers
with Hunkentenor William Burden (left).

Yep, even tenors are getting into the act.

It’s not a high-minded or aesthetic opposition; there’s no question of my tut-tutting, “What would Wagner say? This has nothing to do with art!” No, dear reader, the trouble is that I know too many of these guys. And that’s creepy.

Pity me! Across Opera World, thousands of men (and at least a few women) are drooling over David Adam Moore. Whereas I have to look him in the eye — up here — when we go for coffee. Daniel Okulitch stripped in The Fly, and his naked photos flew onto hard drives like lightning or locusts — while I was making small talk with his mom and dad.

It’s gotten so bad that I can’t even ogle Darren Criss without feeling guilty, because he is, as we know, the Wes Mason of pop music.

And it doesn’t help that I own socks that are older than Dan Kempson.

Who just married another young barihunk.

Really, I feel guilty just writing his name.

Okulitch in The Fly.
This photo does absolutely nothing for me.
That would be wrong.
And I do not own a copy of the full-frontal shot.
Trust me.

All of the aforementioned guys are in the Barihunks calendar. And so, lucky devils, you can hang these ’em on your wall, fantasize, write love letters, carve their initials on your flesh, do whatever you please. And I hope that you will. But you must understand that I’ll remain a eunuch when I’m around this harem, a wallflower at this fantasy-orgy, a priest in this choir room.

(Okay, maybe that last metaphor was ill-chosen.)

When he was writing about opera, George Bernard Shaw
did not have this kind of problem. Just saying.

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Newspaper & Magazine Publishers Announce Technological Developments

Seeking to remain competitive and commercially viable in a changing world, the American Newspaper and Magazine Publishers Association today announced a new technology that, in the words of Association president Charles Fosterkain, “will enhance the experience of reading a newspaper or magazine, making it more like the experience of reading online.”

The new technology consists of hiring thousands of children. Whenever a reader attempts to turn the page of a newspaper or magazine, a child will “pop up,” grab the publication, and run around the room while screaming, “Buy me something! Buy me something! Buy me something!”

Before a reader can actually see the article she wanted — and paid for — she will have to wait patiently for the child to give back the newspaper or magazine.

“Personally, I don’t see the appeal,” Fosterkain told reporters. “But so many people are reading online now, you gotta figure they like it this way.”

For readers on the go, a mobile application can be used.
This model is being tested in a supermarket.

The new technology is still being tested but may be ready for general use as soon as April, Fosterkain said.
Written after spending too much time reading The New York Times and New York Magazine online.

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16 December 2011

Hamilton’s ‘The People Could Fly’

During the 1992 election campaign, I was taking calls in the newsroom when a viewer called to protest not something any CBS personnel had said (whew) but an inappropriate remark by one of the candidates. Ross Perot’s reference to a difficult situation as a “tar baby” was, she said, bigoted.

The conversation struck me. Sure, the core problem was that she didn’t want Perot — an old white guy with no particular track record on civil rights — using black folklore to his own purpose. And yet it struck me as sad, on purely literary-aesthetic grounds, that such a vivid metaphor might be off-limits.

Virginia Hamilton

Already in 1992, the author Virginia Hamilton had devoted much of her prolific career to reclaiming black folklore, beginning with some of her earliest books in the mid-1960s. She stripped the stories of their Joel Chandler Harris–Walt Disney-accented minstrelsy, restored them to parity with the traditional tales of other cultures (much as the Grimms had done for Germany), and most importantly, placed them securely in the hands of a new generation, who might draw upon their wisdom and build a sounder future.

Her best-known collection, The People Could Fly, beautifully illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon, won a slew of awards in the mid-1980s, and fully deserves the status of a classic. I returned to the book recently, and found joy there.

One of the illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon

Here is the Tar Baby, and right off the bat we see what Virginia Hamilton is up to. Harris’ exaggeration of black speech — so thickly rendered that as a boy I couldn’t make sense of it — is gone. Instead, she gives us lucid prose that reflects but doesn’t overdo the oral tradition: “Brer” Rabbit is now “Bruh,” for example, and while he’s still the wily Trickster, outwitting his foes but sometimes undone by his own foibles, he’s presented now as a character, not a cartoon.

The stories are still fun, but they’re treated with respect — and so, in turn, is the reader. In like fashion, Virginia Hamilton follows each tale with a few paragraphs of background, to satisfy the curiosity of older readers, tracing the roots of the tradition throughout North America and Africa.

Several other tales depict scary-comic devils and the resourceful heroes who oppose them: one of the book’s greatest achievements is the constant evocation of the importance of intelligence in surmounting even the worst predicaments. Some of these heroes are boys, some are girls; some are princes, others are slaves.

Indeed, slavery, diaspora, and poverty enrich the stories: you get a clear sense of people sticking together and enduring hardship through the use of imagination and language. And the real whammy is saved for the last, the title story, one of the most poignant I know of.

The very phrase “the people could fly” is a poem, a complete story in its way, a signal of aspiration and redemption. For a time, it entered my everyday speech, and Dan Rather’s, too: for example, when Michael Jordan retired (for about ten minutes), Dan shook his head and said, “He could fly.”

On a school visit

I was inspired to return to the book at a party in Paris last year, when the friend of a friend mentioned that her mother was a writer. When she told me just who her mother was, I nearly fell over: I could hardly have been more surprised if she’d told me that her mother herself could, in fact, fly. Returning to New York and unpacking my books, I discovered that my copy of The People Could Fly had disappeared, probably given to one of my godkids. (“Of course I didn’t forget your birthday! See, I have a present for you right here.”)

So I went out and got a new copy, and look forward to reacquainting myself even further with Virginia Hamilton’s work. She was the first African American to win the Newbery Medal, for M.C. Higgins the Great, and her mystery novel The House of Dies Drear was a favorite among the girls I knew. There’s a lot to rediscover, and a lot I have yet to explore.

Leigh Hamilton

I won’t have the honor of getting acquainted with Virginia Hamilton herself; she passed away in 2002. But that daughter of hers? Leigh Hamilton is a knockout (literally — she boxes) who is also a very dramatic soprano.

She can fly, baby. I’m immensely pleased to know her — and looking forward to hearing her in person, instead of relying on YouTube clips!

NOTE: Among the pleasures of Virginia Hamilton’s website is a whimsical collection of facts, pictures, stories, and jokes about frogs. Even as you’re admiring her career and her œuvre, do take a minute to check out the fun.

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