Posted in Brain Bits, Opera, Television

Brain Bits for a Snowy Saturday

We’re one day past the Ides of February, and snow flakes the size of quarters are falling outside my window. Pitchers and catchers have reported to spring training, Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow, yet we’re still stuck in neutrals of brown, gray and above all, white. Where are you, warm weather?

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Fans of the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD broadcasts are definitely in for a treat today when the new production of”Rigoletto” gets beamed ’round the world. Director Michael Mayer has set the opera in Rat Pack-era Las Vegas, 1960, and amazingly, it works. That being said, I think the HD audience will enjoy it even more than I did when I saw the production live in the house this past Tuesday. The problem is this: while the setting is a great deal of fun, it’s enormously distracting when the curtain goes up and you’re looking at a neon-lit casino, with wall-to-wall roulette and blackjack tables, men in leopard print dinner jackets and Countess Ceprano swanning about as Marilyn Monroe. My eyes felt like pinwheels trying to take all this in, to the extent that Piotr Bezcala’s “Questa o quella” barely registered (though he does rock a mean mic). With the HD cameras directing the view, this busy-ness should be lessened considerably.

Tragedy in a Cadillac
Tragedy in a Cadillac

Nitpickers will carp that depicting Monterone as an Arab Sheik is ridiculous, and that even Sinatra didn’t have an entourage the size of the army that hangs around the Duke (no wonder Gilda is terrified). It didn’t bother me because the game was worth the candle. As Peter Sellars did with his “Nozze di Figaro,” set in the Trump Tower (one of the best opera productions I ever saw), Mayer gets the soul of the work. In “Rigoletto,” Verdi forces us to examine a milieu that’s enticing but corrupt to the core, that grinds out innocence and destroys love. I always thought setting this in Studio 54 during the cocaine ’70’s would be a great idea, but I like Mayer’s idea so much more.

As to the music, Diana Damrau, a wonderful Gilda, sang perhaps the best “Caro nome” I’ve ever heard. Piotr Beczala had a few pinched high notes at the outset, which really surprised me, but Conductor Michele Mariotti did him no favors. Fortunately Beczala soon sounded like his normal self, ultimately delivering a tremendous “La donne è mobile.” Željiko Lucic broke my heart when he confronted the Duke’s courtiers, Stefan Kocan was an amusingly suave Sparafucile, and the last act quartet, featuring mezzo Oksana Volkova as one hot-to-trot Maddalena, was outstanding.

If you can’t make it to today’s HD, there’s always an encore presentation to look forward to, as well as the PBS telecast during the summer. Enjoy!

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While I was tempted to hold my comments until after tomorrow night’s season finale, I have to say “Downton Abbey” has made a terrific comeback from the doldrums of Sybil’s death, its impact on Robert and Cora’s marriage and the wrangling over a Catholic baptism for baby Sybil. Nearly everyone, both above and below stairs, has either returned to form or even better.

The best show in town, hands down, was the Dowager Countess and Isabel Crawley singing that old duet, “Anything You Can Snark, I Can Snark Better.” Talk about moxie—Violet places an ad to get poor Ethel hired out-of-town? Without talking to Isabel, her employer, first? I know rank has its privilege, but come on. It seemed even she finally realized that her meddling better go the whole route and come down on the side of the angels. So voila—the Dowager works her magic to smooth the way for Ethel to take a post near her son’s grandparents where she’ll be able to see her boy again. Violet 1, Nasty Grandpa 0.

Of course karma paid a visit by saddling her with Rose, that 18 year-old wild child of a grandniece. Is having a (distantly) related Bright Young Thing suddenly appearing out of the blue somehow mandatory in British period drama? This started with Georgianna in the original “Upstairs, Downstairs,” only to recur with that naughty Nazi sympathizer, Lady Persephone, in the show’s recent incarnation. We know it’s now 1920-something in “Downton Abbey”-land, which gives Julian Fellows license to feature basement jazz joints and aristocrats gone wild, but how clichéd can you get? Rose is already a major pain, but her scenes were worth enduring just to see Matthew burst her bubble: “Married men always have horrid wives.”

Speaking of Matthew and the Department of Fecundity, we all knew that his spinal cord injury had nothing to do with the absence of a Matthew or Mary Jr. Now that Mary has set things right, gynecologically speaking (nice bit of continuity that she used her American grandma’s name for a cover—at least she was good for something) we can get on with the next generation. And finally we had some teasing and flirting between the two of them, what with all the sturm und drang of a nearly bankrupt Downton. I’ve gone back to really liking Mary in the last two episodes—siding with Tom over the baby’s baptism and finally hopping on the Matthew Express Train of Success, because her old man’s ideas about how to run an estate seem to be even stodgier than himself.

Truly allies at last
Truly allies at last

I’m of two minds about Edith’s storyline. On the one hand, I love seeing her all modern and out and about in the world (the clothes are fabulous). Her editor is an engaging sort, but why is she being forced into playing Jane Eyre, what with his crazy wife in an asylum? On the Tom front, I’m glad I was wrong about his fate—it’ll be great to see him run Downton as the estate’s agent, and I’m enjoying his closeness to Cora. His confrontation with his drunken brother below stairs was so impressive that he finally (and rightly) won Carson over at long last.

I don’t understand the hubbub about Thomas and the confusion over who was egging James on. Aren’t these people wise to what an intriguer O’Brien is, especially now that she’s obviously looking after her nephew’s interests? Everyone from Lord Grantham to Daisy was aware Thomas was gay, so big deal. Nevertheless, it was worth following all the twists and turns of the story just to hear the Earl’s crack about being kissed at Eton and seeing O’Brien blanch after Bates whispered Thomas’s magic words in her ear.

Finally, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I don’t think Bates’s release from prison is the end of the story. See, I thought all along he killed his wife, and I sense there’s a lot more in his past that’s going to come out. To me there’s something not quite right about the man. We’ll see what the future holds on that score.

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2 thoughts on “Brain Bits for a Snowy Saturday

  1. Hi Judi–totally agree that unless it’s delivered by Maria Ouspenskaya, a curse ain’t worth spit. Did you ever see the Jonathan Miller production of Rigoletto? It’s either on DVD or the ‘net or both. He set it in 1950’s Little Italy, so there was a lot more weight to what Monterone had to say. Plus Miller clearly indicated that Gilda was raped, not seduced, by the Duke, so there was real heat in the duet that closed Act III. Yep, Lucic made me cry when he confronted the Duke’s courtiers, though I wish Mayer would have had him ditch the trench coat—Rigoletto should show up in his loudest outfit to conceal his pain.

    BTW, I understand the HD was an expurgated version. In the house, the pole dancer is topless.

  2. Ah Betty, right as usual. Rigoletto was fabulous and we loved the Vegas setting. The only things that made me laugh a little were – 1. a curse just doesn’t hold the same terror today as it did in the 16th century and 2. the virginity issue was funny, although I guess in the early 60’s it was still a big thing…!
    The vocals were amazing. And yes, her Caro Nome was superb! By the way, my favorite part in the opera is the pathos of Rigoletto when he is looking for Gilda. I can hear Robert Merrill doing this from my old RCA recording (now on CD).
    As for Downton – I’m not sure how I feel about this season. Let me see the finale before I decide.

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