Posted in Brain Bits, Opera, Television

Gingerbread Month and Other Brain Bits

The holidays are almost over, but for me, the all-time ginger fanatic, my favorite treat is always in season. Ginger snaps are my passion, and for no other reason I love December because that’s the time when Celestial Seasonings trots out a gingerbread herb tea that’s beyond delicious. You don’t need dessert after sipping a cuppa, post-dinner.

Johann Strauss II with a large beard, moustach...
Johann the Younger

I’m spending this afternoon listening to an archival Metropolitan Opera broadcast from 1951–Die Fledermaus in English, featuring Patrice Munsel, Rise Stevens and Richard Tucker as Alfred, among others, with Eugene Ormandy on the podium. The Met usually digs into its historic trove once or twice during a broadcast season, and they make fascinating listening. It’s fun to hear how performance styles have changed over the years, and it’s equally amusing to see how some things are destined to remain the same, such as the presence of over-parted singers, like today’s Rosalinda, Marguerite Piazza. On the other hand, this Fledermaus presents us with a considerable bag of  goodies–Eugene Ormandy keeps the performance wonderfully frothy, Patrice Munsel is a delightful Adele and Richard Tucker, in addition to that golden tenor of his, is incredibly funny. Plus we get to hear “Roses from the South,” my favorite Strauss waltz, during Orlofsky’s party! What a great treat on New Year’s Eve.

Speaking of music and New Year’s Eve, the last couple of days have been a boon for classical music fans. It’s the Annual WQXR Classical Countdown, and while I was disappointed that Berlioz’s “Symphony Fantastique” didn’t make the Top 75, I was delighted to see my ballot box stuffing pay off for Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde,” which clocked in at No. 20. Although there’s little suspense, what with Beethoven’s 9th, 7th and 5th always among the Top 10 (enough already), it’s still a great way to celebrate year’s end with the best music ever written.

Since December is TV rerun hell, I’ve had a chance to catch up on my DVD viewing. I fell in love with Downton Abbey, and can’t wait for next Sunday when Season 2 begins on PBS.  But the most entertaining show I’ve seen in a long time was the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick documentary, Prohibition, which originally aired on PBS. I’ve not always been a Ken Burns fan–I much prefer the work of his brother, Ric, whose darker view makes Coney Island, The Donner Party and especially New York so engrossing. Ken’s films, postThe Civil War, seem to me to be suffering from terminal bloat. Fortunately that’s not the case with Prohibition which in the argot of the times, could best be described as a snappy tale told in snappy style. It’s especially fun to watch side by side with Boardwalk Empire, and to see how well-grounded the HBO series is—yes, George Remus spoke of himself in the third person, Al Capone began his career as Johnny Torrio’s gofer and the Assistant U.S. Attorney played by Julianne Nicholson is obviously based on Mabel Walker Willebrandt, Assistant Attorney General whom President Harding put in charge of enforcing the Volstead Act. Unlike the series Baseball, Prohibition doesn’t get lost in pre-history—we never have the sense of being bogged down in the 19th century, impatiently waiting for the good stuff to begin. Events move swiftly, and based on the press for this series, I suspect the improved storytelling may have been Lynn Novick’s doing. There’s very little that’s clichéd—while we get Al Capone and machine guns, this is more than offset by the droll observations of Lois Long originally published in The New Yorker. And as always in a Burns documentary, whether Ken or Ric, the musical score couldn’t be better,  what with composer David Cieri’s evocative main theme and Wynton Marsalis and the boys tearing up 1920’s jazz. It doesn’t get better than that.

Posted in Movie Reviews

Paradise Road: Not Your Standard Chick Flick

There are certain movies I’m compelled to watch if they pop up when I channel surf. Last month I hardly got anything done because Up in the Air was running endlessly on cable, and who can resist George Clooney in a story like that? Yesterday it was a film I hadn’t watched in quite a while–Paradise Road, starring an amazing line-up of actors: Glenn Close, Pauline Collins, Frances McDormand, Julianna Marguilies, Jennifer Ehle and perhaps best of all, a young Cate Blanchett in her first make-you-sit-up-and-take-notice role.

Frances McDormand and Cate Blanchett

The film is based on true events: the evacuation of women and children from Singapore in 1942 prior to the British surrender, the torpedoing and strafing of their rescue ships and their subsequent internment by the Japanese on Sumatra for three and a half years. The internees were a mixed lot: wives and children of army officers, businessmen and Dutch planters, missionaries, nuns and Australian army nurses, among others. During their captivity two of the women organized a “vocal orchestra,” and from memory, wrote scores of classical works arranged for performance by their fellow prisoners. Unlike a number of these women, the scores survived the war and are heard in the film.

Admittedly the movie, written and directed by Bruce Beresford (Breaker Morant and later, Driving Miss Daisy), pulls some punches. It does not show the machine-gun massacre of survivors of the sunken Vyner Brooke, nor the sexual abuse many of the women endured. And for obvious reasons the actors can’t come near to resembling real survivors of years of starvation, malaria and dysentery with little if any medical treatment. But what we do see is enough to make you wonder how their actual counterparts made it through.

There are some amazing moments in this movie: Cate Blanchett’s army nurse standing up to the camp commander over the deprivation the internees have suffered, and later enduring a day and night of torture; Glenn Close, the organizer of the vocal orchestra, being marched into the jungle by a Japanese sergeant (wonderfully played by Clyde Kusatsu), obviously fearing her imminent execution or worse, only to be confronted by something quite different; and Julianna Marguilies, tempted by the opportunity to live in luxury while servicing Japanese officers, not quite nobly opting to “sing and starve.” Frances McDormand has a great time playing the camp’s doctor, a German Jewish refugee, and Jennifer Ehle is heartbreaking as the newlywed separated from her army officer husband. I also enjoyed Johanna Ter Steege as the not-so-innocent nun (“I luff viskey!”), but Pauline Collins, as the missionary who writes the vocal scores from memory, gets the best scene. Her quietly calling the camp commander on the real extent of his authority suspends time–you can’t believe she’s said what she said, and you wonder where she got the gall to say it.

This one is well worth the time, but I’d advise passing up the cable version for either a Region 2 DVD or the film on VHS (remember those?). The TV version and as I understand it, the Region 1 DVD, both omit a crucial scene–the defiant aftermath of the death of one of the main characters. This should not be missed.

Posted in Television

Boardwalk Empire: To The Lost

The last Sunday night with Boardwalk Empire until next year would have dampened my spirits, but Jimmy Darmody’s demise left me sadder than any TV episode has done in a very long time.

Much of what we saw was foreseeable–Nucky’s marrying Margaret as the only way to assure her silence in the face of his impending trial; her signing the deed to Nucky’s valuable property over to the Church when she senses his lies; the Commodore’s murder covered up through bribery; Van Alden, having made a clean getaway, beginning a new life with the Swedish nanny in Cicero as Mr. and Mrs. Mueller, baby Abigail in tow; Jimmy and Richard’s delivering the three Ku Kluxers to Chalky White as promised.

And then there was Jimmy’s murder, with Nucky pulling the trigger.

Jimmy’s been a dead man walking this entire season, ever since Richard Harrow asked him in the first episode: “How does it feel to have everything?” We’ve seen him lose it all, bit by bit, even while he was becoming the Man to See. First it was the liquor shipment, then allies and the respect of those around him, followed by Angela and finally his own life. The title of this episode was telling–Jimmy was very much a part of that Lost Generation that fought in the Great War, yet he never really stood a chance, what with that sociopath of a mother. Yet he did have a soul, expressed by that acknowledgment of what he had done to Nucky and his desire to “make things right.” As Nucky coldbloodedly said, before he pulled the trigger, “Unlike you, James, I don’t seek forgiveness.”

I was especially impressed by how somber this episode was. Yes, we had the gaudy touch of Richard’s blowing out the back of Acting Treasurer Neary’s head, but the general tone was quiet intensity. I enjoyed watching the Powers That Be upping the ante of The Godfather by crosscutting between Nucky and Margaret at the Church and Esther’s rehearsing her opening statement while dressing for court. And if Steve Buscemi doesn’t win an Emmy for his performance, there’s something seriously wrong with the universe. He has given life to a character that simply can not be pegged. His almost imperceptible wince when Manny acknowledged killing Angela makes you think he’s got some standards, but then we get that masterpiece of duality in his proposal to Margaret, and finally his last chilling confrontation with Jimmy.

What a brew Boardwalk Empire leaves for next season–Nucky’s murdered whom he thinks was his would-be murderer, only to let Eli, the real rat, live; Gillian and Richard are sure to seek revenge for Jimmy’s death; Manny Horvitz is now beholden to Nucky; Arnold Rothstein & Co. are about to peddle heroin; Nucky’s most valuable property is gone; and I doubt it’s a coincidence that the Powers That Be have relocated Van Alden to Cicero, home base of Al Capone. We’ll just have to wait and see, right?

Posted in Opera

Regietheater, or “Mommy, There’s an A-Bomb in My ‘Faust’!”

I’d been looking forward to the Met’s new production of Faust, starring Jonas Kaufmann (sigh!), Rene Pape and Marina Poplavskaya, for months, but the performance I saw last night can only be described as regietheater run amok. Des McAnuff, who directed this production, should be forced to return his fee—and then some.

Not Your Daddy's Verdi

Regietheater, translated from the German as “director’s theater,” is that approach to opera whereby the director unleashes his id in a “re-examination” of a familiar work. European directors have notoriously been indulging themselves this way for years. The end result frequently resembles a wrestling match with their issues, usually: (a) mommy or daddy (b) the Catholic Church (c) the strictures of society (d) the political landscape of Europe or (e) all of the above. So it’s no wonder that an opera like Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, with its political assassination plot and theme of illicit love, has so frequently been thrown under the bus in the name of regietheater (The Magic Flute, with its examination of darkness and enlightenment, not to mention brotherhood, is another favorite target). We’ve had Calixto Bieto’s version, with the opening chorus of conspirators sitting on toilets, reading newspapers with their pants down around their ankles, followed by a gem of a production directed by Johann Kresnik, featuring the World Trade Center and a chorus of naked senior citizens wearing Mickey Mouse masks (You can thank me later for not subjecting you to the full frontal photo).

For the Met, Des McAnuff has retold Faust as the story of an atomic scientist who, after witnessing the end result of his life’s work, commits suicide by drinking poison. But in that split second before he dies, he flashes back to World War I and his encounter with Marguerite. His conduit to the past is Mephistopheles, who in what is actually a rather neat idea, is presented not necessarily as the Devil (capital “D”) but as Mr. Hyde to Faust’s Dr. Jekyll. The two characters are identically dressed throughout the opera, the only difference being Mephistopheles’ red (of course) boutonniere and tie to Faust’s white. While we’re on the subject, I enjoy modern dress opera as long as it consistently serves the story. I loved Peter Sellars’s version of the Mozart-DaPonte trilogy, and fail to understand the Met patrons I heard a couple of seasons ago kvetching about the new production of La Traviata, with Violetta in red stilettos and a giant clock onstage ticking away her life. I don’t care if the characters in Faust are costumed like the crew on the Starship Enterprise if the composer’s intentions are served.

Kaufmann & Pape Come to Town

Here’s my problem with what’s on view at the Met: We’re stuck in Faust’s atomic lab for the duration of the opera. The set consists of iron girders, ramps and spiral staircases, and its sterility flies in the face of Gounod’s lush music. And while I don’t think McAnuff intended this, the large projections of the faces of Faust and Marguerite are creepy as hell, especially when they blink or move their heads, and should be dispensed with ASAP. There are major questions of consistency here: why did Marguerite first appear as a lab-coated scientist in the opening scene? And aren’t we over the A-bomb as metaphor yet? (By the way, unlike Doctor Atomic, McAnuff’s Faust features both Fat Man and Little Boy. Double the guilt, double the fun!) In focusing on The Concept, McAnuff straightjacketed both Jonas and Popsy. There should be real heat at the end of the garden scene (ooops–no garden, but we did get projections of roses) and a sense of Marguerite’s helplessness in yielding to Faust. It just wasn’t there, and it’s a director’s job to be certain it is. Similarly, I missed the degree of desperation I expect during the final trio. Ditto.

Musically speaking the results were variable. Rene Pape was a wonderful Mephistopheles, both vocally and dramatically, and it was only when he was front and center that the opera came to life. I especially enjoyed the way he made the crowd dance during “Le Veau D’Or” (think “Day-O” during the dinner party scene of Beetlejuice), and his doing a Fred Astaire in the midst of his salacious serenade was a marvelous touch. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the conductor, was excellent, and no tenor could have asked for a more sympathetic accompaniment during “Salut! Demeure chaste et pure.” Speaking of which, Jonas Kaufmann produced a rather spectacular diminuendo during this aria last night, though there were a few rough patches in his performance. He was a bit slow warming up, and I’m not too crazy about the pianissimo tone he produces. Poplavskaya has the notes, but something seems to be lacking….a greater degree of vulnerability, perhaps? If so, I tend to think this was McAnuff’s fault, not hers, because the production certainly didn’t so her any favors.

Ultimately the Met’s new production of Faust is Exhibit A of the evils of regietheater. It puts The Concept first while the music is relegated to the back of the bus. And the music must be served first–after all, it’s opera.

Posted in Television

Boardwalk Empire: What a Ride

While catching my breath from tonight’s developments, I thought I’d just mull over a few highlights:

Can anyone really be surprised that Jimmy slept with his mother? This seems to have been her master plan all along, what with the liquor and the lateness of the hour, not to mention the way she grabbed him and held on for all she was worth. No wonder he enlisted in the Army the next day. The good news is that he’s on to her desire to get her hooks into Tommy, so maybe he’ll do something to prevent history from repeating itself.

Dear old Princeton. Michael Pitt and Aleksa Palladino were wonderfully awkward and charming as the younger versions of their characters. I wish we had gotten some icing on the cake with a cameo by an undergrad named Fitzgerald–F. Scott that is–who, given the time frame, would have been a pre-war classmate of Jimmy’s.

Poor Angela–always second best. At least we finally learned her maiden name. I wasn’t too pleased with the schmatte she wore to the party, but she was supporting herself by waitressing and this was probably the best she could afford. No matter what, she would have been outshone by Gillian, who knew exactly what she wanted out of Princeton and came prepared. It was sweet to see how consistent Angela was, her kindness to Jimmy’s nerdy roommate later mirrored by the compassion she showed Richard. And it was no surprise how much Gillian despised her and how she made damn sure the story got out about her affair with Louise. I’m curious, though, about her reference to Mary Dittrich’s being in Paris. How would she have known that Angela’s lover was there unless Jimmy told her?

I loved this episode’s bookended scenes–at the beginning, Angela’s breathy “Jimmy, I have to leave” and then at the end, her haunting repeat of the phrase as he awakens to an empty room devoid of any trace of the Commodore’s death. Michael Pitt was astonishing during this episode, particularly when Jimmy, his eyes welling, listened to his demon mother spin what they’d tell Tommy about Angela’s absence, ending with “In a month no one will remember her,” and then his explosive “I’LL remember” as he tried to strangle her. Too bad he was interrupted by the Commodore. I hate Gillian with the heat of one thousand suns, but if Gretchen Mol weren’t giving the performance she is, I wouldn’t be able to. While I’m glad the Commodore is dead, I hated Jimmy’s being the instrument of his mother’s revenge. God knows, he’s got enough problems.

And Richard. Watching the Tin Man cry as he knelt over the spot where Angela died was another heartbreak. Yet his loyalty to Jimmy remains unshaken–there he is, literally cleaning up Jimmy’s mess once again. His “It’s OK” nod to the wounded Jimmy before he curtained the view was like sealing a promise.

I was also delighted to see some intriguing Van Alden action. Mickey Doyle is a dead man. And finally, Agent Sebso’s revenge! Now the lawman is the wanted man.

It’s hard to believe next Sunday’s episode is the season finale. It’ll be interesting to see how many corpses pile up, not to mention whether Margaret testifies against Nucky, Jimmy avenges Angela’s murder, Eli keeps his trap shut, Van Alden gets captured and Gillian gets hers. One can only hope.