Posted in Television

Boardwalk Empire: The Finale

BE Eldorado

So in the end he had nowhere to go. Boxed in on the boardwalk by Joe Harper, aka Tommy Darmody, and two I.R.S. agents, Nucky Thompson is murdered by the grandson of the girl he betrayed so long ago.

“Boardwalk Empire” ended its five-year run on Sunday. While the denouement was just, it left a few questions behind.

On the one hand, having Nucky dispatched by Tommy Darmody was an exciting twist, though long-time viewers of the show undoubtedly got it when Tommy referred to “Mee-maw” in his final confrontation with the family enemy. However, in the clear light of day, there appeared to be a serious case of SORAS (Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome) going on. If my math is correct, Tommy couldn’t have been more than 14 at the time this episode is taking place. We’re still in 1931—the last season of “Boardwalk Empire” was set entirely in 1924, and Mickey Doyle recently mentioned that he had run the former Onyx Club “for the last seven years.” As for Tommy’s birthdate, this seems to have been firmly established back in Season 2 when his father ran off to war in 1917, leaving the pregnant Angela behind.

When the big reveal came, I first thought “Here’s Tommy being his father’s son.” Well, yes and no. Jimmy was something of a scholar at Princeton; I tend to think his life’s path would have been very different had he not gone to war, which of course was precipitated by Gillian’s seducing him. Tommy was removed from his grandmother’s influence at an early age; his appearance as Nucky’s killer begs the question of how he came to know the entirety of the Darmody Family history. Since Richard Harrow held no grudge against Nucky, he wouldn’t have identified Nucky as Jimmy’s killer, and Julia, Tommy’s adoptive mother, wouldn’t have known about this in any event. But Terrence Winter, the brains behind “Boardwalk Empire,” no doubt thought the excitement of the final twist would be sufficient to wallpaper over any inconsistencies. For most viewers, I’d say he was right.

Nevertheless, there was much to enjoy in this final episode. The autumnal strains of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 threading through the soundtrack. The performance of actor Marc Pickering as young Nucky, having to cope not only with a mouthful of prosthetic teeth and accurately mirroring Steve Buscemi’s every gesture and facial expression, but also speaking with the older actor’s accent (Pickering is English). Nucky’s seeing the future in the form of television (a neat joke), only he’s not in it. Watching Margaret in action as a stockbroker making a different type of killing than her husband, though I sincerely doubt Joseph Kennedy would have needed coaching on how to get ahead by selling short (He would soon become the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission). Her lovely, regret-filled scene with Nucky, and his equally poignant farewell to Eli. The one bit I didn’t like was Charlie Luciano’s convening that first meeting of the heads of the crime families, taken wholesale from “The Godfather.” There’s homage and there’s rip-off. This scene was strictly the latter.

From the start of this final episode, Nucky knew his end was approaching. He had methodically shed himself of possessions and money, and said farewell to both his loved ones and the person over whom he felt the most guilt, Gillian Darmody. That Nucky had procured Gillian for the Commodore was old news—we learned this in Season 1. But we never knew the extent of his betrayal, that he’d manipulate and sacrifice this 13 year-old girl, an orphan whom he had pledged to help. And to a man who though admittedly powerful, so thoroughly despised him. Depressingly, just as his own father did.

A sad ending to an ultimately sad life. RIP “Boardwalk Empire,” and Nucky, Chalky, Narcisse, Mickey, Van Alden, Richard, Gyp, Angela, Jimmy and the dozens of others that met their ends over the years. I’m going to miss this show.

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Posted in Opera

Le Nozze di Figaro

"Aprite un po' quegli occhi!"
“Aprite un po’ quegli occhi!”

There are many operatic comedies, but if there’s a work that ends on a more joyous note than “Le Nozze di Figaro,” I’ve yet to see it. Indeed, Saturday’s finale to Mozart’s opera, courtesy of the Met’s Live in HD telecast, was cause for elation.

There’s just so much in “Figaro”: servant vs. master, long-lost parents, assignations in the garden, a randy pageboy who enjoys dressing as a girl, and most of all, that incredible Act Two, with its musically intricate and plot-twisting finale. Not to mention the funniest moment in opera—when Susanna, not Cherubino, steps out of the closet, to the Count’s complete stupification. (For the record my other favorites are Mistresses Ford and Page discovering Falstaff has sent them both the same love letter, the ménage à trois of “Le Comte D’Ory” and Almaviva and Rosina singing of how they’ll make their getaway instead of making their getaway while Figaro is “andiam”–ing them onward).

Richard Eyre’s production, which opened the current Met season, sets “Figaro” in 1930’s Spain. In my experience putting the singers in contemporary dress often frees them, not only from the literal constraints of corsets and powdered wigs, but from a type of formality that can be distancing. In short a modern dress production seems to enable them (and the audience) to relate to their characters and each other more easily than in a traditional staging. Such was the case here—the singers seemed to be enjoying themselves to the hilt.

There’s been a great deal of debate as to what that ’30’s setting signifies in view of Franco and the looming Civil War. I see it in a different light. Let me give you a hint: think Renoir’s “The Rules of the Game,” not politics. In fact if memory serves, Renoir precedes the action of his film with a quote from the source of the opera, Beaumarchais’ “Le marriage de Figaro.” Like the world of that film, the regime Eyre portrays is corrupt and dying; what’s left is love, the chase and other divertissements.

Eyre begins the production with a prequel that accompanies the overture. I didn’t care for his use of this device in his production of “Werther” last season, but I very much enjoyed it here. The scenes on the revolving set featured a maid running to work from the Count’s chambers while hastily dressing en route; the knowing looks of her fellow servants when she finally reports to her post; the gardener Antonio, already tippling in the a.m.; and the Countess, restlessly tossing in her bed—alone.

This was the 75th performance of “Le Nozze di Figaro” conducted by James Levine at the Met, and musical matters were as crisp as ever. The cast was excellent. Ildar Abdrazakov, shorn of his beard and Prince Igor’s long locks, is an engaging and enormously attractive Figaro. He and Marlis Petersen made an interesting team. Somewhat cast against type (she was a sinuous, dangerous Lulu at the Met several seasons ago), she proved a slightly older and definitely wiser Susanna than usual. Susanna is no ingenue, and variations on the role are most welcome. Years ago I saw Catherine Malfitano (pre-Salome and Tosca) perform a lovely, vulnerable Susanna, while Judith Blegen brought her sharp intelligence to the role. During the second act jousting with the Count, her expression wasn’t just “How did a nice girl like me end up in a mess like this?” it was “How did a nice smart girl like me” etc. In the current production the modern era works to Petersen’s advantage—she could have given Carole Lombard a run for her money in any 30’s screwball comedy.

I have to admit one of my main reasons for buying a ticket to this performance was to hear Peter Mattei sing “Contessa, perdono.” For sheer beauty of sound, there are few currently active baritones who can touch him. His Count Almaviva possessed the most important attribute necessary to putting the role across—authority, which he never lost despite the many times he was outfoxed by Figaro, Susanna and nearly everyone else on stage. I would have liked to have seen a Countess who could truly match him, but Amanda Majeski isn’t quite there yet, though she may well be in the future. I thought her performance a bit one-note—this Countess should have been on Prozac, though she eagerly joined in the many twists and turns of Act Two. I tend to think the overdone depression was more Eyre’s take on the character than hers, so there may be some tweaking in the future.

Isabel Leonard is a beautiful woman with a lovely voice, but I wasn’t really impressed until seeing her performance as Cherubino. She’s inside his skin, and looked quite dashing in that white suit. However, I was somewhat disappointed by “Voi che sapete.” She acted the lyrics to the aria, which resulted in some abruptly terminated phrases. But the aria is really a performance piece, and I would have preferred to have heard it as pure music rather than a vehicle by which Cherubino too obviously shows his befuddlement and anxiety to the Countess. Since it’s such a calling card for lyric mezzos, I can’t imagine this was Ms. Leonard’s idea, but it needs to be thrown overboard forthwith.

The rest of the cast was exemplary: Greg Fedderly’s Don Basilio seemed like Paul Lynde revisited, Susanne Mentzer, a former Cherubino of distinction, was a wonderfully arch Marcellina and John Del Carlo blustered becomingly as Bartolo. There was also a star in the making—Ying Fang, whose Barbarina had far more voice that you usually hear in this role. She’s got the limpid sound and the charm to be a wonderful Mimi, and I look forward to hearing more from her in the future.

What a lovely way to start a season of opera.

Some food for thought: Here’s a snapshot of what’s wrong with opera in America today. At my local multiplex there were only about 40 people in attendance for the “Figaro” HD telecast. I spotted one couple in their early 30’s, another in their 40’s, and a young woman in her 20’s who arrived with her mother. No one else in the theater would see 55 again, and in fact, the majority of attendees appeared to be in their late 60’s and far beyond. And, sad to say, the situation is no different at the university where I usually attend HD telecasts. So the marketing folks better get cracking pronto, before there’s no audience remaining to appreciate some of the greatest works ever created.

Posted in Observations

Sayreville

map_of_sayreville_njThere’s a tragedy that’s still unfolding in Sayreville, New Jersey, and unfortunately its nature comes as no surprise. This fall has seen domestic violence perpetrated by Ray Rice and an admitted “whupping” administered by Adrian Peterson to his four-year-old son, preceded by countless instances of college professors complaining (and litigating) over received threats, coercion and actual job loss to force them to award passing grades to football players so that they can remain eligible to play.

But this?

In the event you’re not familiar with the situation, seven high school varsity football players between the ages of 15 and 17 have variously been charged with aggravated sexual assault and other crimes allegedly perpetrated on several members of the freshman football team. As reported at nj.com , the alleged behavior consisted of attacks on freshmen in the locker room that began with a wolf howl, signaling a dowsing of lights, followed by forcibly pinning the boy to the floor, then standing him up and—forgive the graphic description—a varsity player’s shoving a finger into the victim’s rectum and then (same finger) into the victim’s mouth. While this was going on, one or two varsity players stood lookout and prevented anyone from entering or leaving the locker room. As of this writing, four such incidents have been identified; I have no doubt more freshmen will be coming forward, and the seven varsity players will most likely be implicating others, particularly if the county prosecutor seeks to try them as adults.

The reveal began in murky fashion. The Sayreville Superintendent of Schools announced at a press conference that all football games were cancelled for the coming weekend. He spoke of serious allegations concerning the safety of the players, but refused to be more specific, thus raising more questions than answers. He also spoke of the possibility of cancelling the rest of the season, which angered many parents. Even this former band nerd, who loathed every pep rally she was forced to play for, was taken aback, given the potential loss of college scholarships if the players could not be assessed by scouts during the games remaining on the schedule. However, all became clear two days later when a parent whose son had been the victim of one of these attacks provided details to nj.com under cover of anonymity. In short order the alleged perpetrators were taken into custody and charged as juveniles.

Where to begin?

With the perpetrators who, despite all that’s been in the news, apparently can’t comprehend that physically violating another human being is wrong, not to mention a crime?

With their parents, though these young men are certainly old enough to bear responsibility for their own choices?

With the coaches, who evidently failed to supervise the locker room, and, more importantly, to teach the young men in their care that being a member of the team is in no way consent to assault?

With those adult residents of the town who treat the varsity football team like demigods, parade around in Sayreville Bomber jackets, and so bitterly reacted to the cancellation of the season that nj.com’s sources requested anonymity for fear of reprisals?

But I have a particular bone to pick with the media which all so often stops short by referring to incidents such as this as “hazing.” You want to stop outrages such as this? Then drop that word and call it what it is—in this case, rape. And the next time some college freshman dies of alcohol poisoning in the house of the fraternity he’s pledging, call it aggravated assault. Because labelling it as hazing connotes “it’s only” behavior, i.e., “Boys will be boys.” It’s dishonest reporting that perpetuates the belief that the victim, by participating in sports or seeking to pledge, is more or less asking for whatever may come his way, including the brutality of his own teammates or fraternity brothers. While I’m well aware that the legal definition of hazing prevents consent from being a defense, this is one instance where the law and public perception sharply depart company.

The Sayreville story is far from over. In fact each day brings a new outrage. This morning I heard on news radio that defense counsel for one of the young men charged is insisting that her client’s suspension from school be lifted to enable him to return to the classroom. “He’s owed an education,” she reportedly stated. Certainly. But not on school grounds where the county prosecutor’s investigation is on-going, not to mention the possibility of his encountering his freshman victims.

Common sense, anyone?