Thursday, October 28, 2010

Opera 101—A Nose By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet… As Victory

Picture, if you will, the tender balcony scene between Roxane and Cyrano, and later between Roxane and Christian. The music swells. The singers profess their love. The curtain falls on the first half of Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac

A smattering of applause, then a roar from the crowd. Cheers for the great Plácido Domingo in one of his signature roles? Nope. The San Francisco Opera had flashed the final score of Game #1 of the World Series as the closing supertitle. Who knew that opera buffs had it in them? But there they were, checking their iPhones during the brief pauses between scenes, taking photos of City Hall (all lit up in orange for the occasion), and cheering the Giants at the end of the Second Act.

Final:  Giants 11  Rangers 7

And the opera?  Pretty darn good. Musically, it doesn’t really compare to our other selections for the year, but with Plácido Domingo as the lead and a strong Roxane (Ainhoa Arteta), it really got to me.  Of course, the original play has always been one of my favorites, both for its poetry and its humor. The poetry was somewhat lost in this version, especially given the French diction of the singers, but the sets were impressive and the adaptation choices quite interesting.  I particularly liked how they flipped the opening theater scene from being about the gamblers, pickpockets, and aristocrats in the audience to a backstage view of the performers getting ready. Ragueneau's bakery was gorgeous and the Arras battlefield was also well done. I'm not sure I would seek out a recording of this opera for my collection, but it was definitely an enjoyable performance.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Boys of October vs. The November Nine

As I prepare for the invasion of my town by baseball fans big and small, I find myself infinitely more interested in the other World Series: The $10,000 No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em Main Event, where thousands of players enter in July, and only nine remain for the final table in November.

What do I like about the World Series of Poker?

It’s international. There are many Americans, true, but also players from Australia, Russia, France, Canada, England, Denmark, China, heck, even Ecuador. Where else, that doesn’t involve snow or ice (or maybe handball), can you see Norwegians and Swedes compete at this level?

It’s ageless. Competitors at this year’s tournament included 97-year-old Jack Ury, who survived through Day 2, 76-year-old Doyle Brunson, who won back-to-back Main Events in 1976 and 1977, and Joe Cada, who, at the age of 21, became the youngest champion ever in 2009.

It’s egalitarian. You have your pros. You have your occasional celebrities (Jason Alexander, Don Cheadle, Hank Azaria). And, while women are few and far between, they are at least competitive. There are also plenty of non-professionals, including November Nine contender Soi Nguyen and once-in-a-lifetime hopefuls like wheelchair-bound Gary Kostiuk, an optometrist with multiple sclerosis who earned his place in this year’s tournament by winning a small, local satellite game. If you can believe it, this year’s “Bubble Boy” was a professional angler.

It involves a Bubble Boy. What more needs to be said?

Sure, in my heart of hearts, I will always be a Red Sox fan. How could I not be after going to Fenway Park with my Dad to see Luis Tiant pitch, or having a stuffed bear whose extended list of middle names included Fred Lynn and Rico Petrocelli? But, these days, I’d rather watch the November Nine than the Boys of October.

*The bulk of the World Series of Poker is filmed over two weeks in July and shown Tuesdays on ESPN through early November, when the nine players who made it to the final table come back to determine the ultimate champion.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Hundred Years War (and Peace)

As October winds down, I’m beginning to seriously worry about getting through this year’s book challenge. Russian Roulette came and went as a book salon topic and I still couldn’t get through War and Peace. Before getting distracted by The Passage (another damn trilogy!), I had read over 400 pages, but, even though I liked it, it wasn’t grabbing me.

Maybe I should have used email?

I think at this point I need to admit (at least temporary) defeat and try to get through the remaining four titles: Catch-22, Le Comte de Monte-Cristo, The Education of Henry Adams, and The Handmaid’s Tale. Of course, given that my book salon has chosen “Water, Water, Everywhere” as our next topic, I’m already thinking of changing out The Education of Henry Adams for Two Years Before the Mast, which had been on my original should-read short list (along with One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is about what I need to get through all these).

Friday, October 15, 2010

Bored with Reality

I’m a big fan of Reality TV. Or, at least I thought I was. But I’ve been wondering lately if its time has past. Is it me, or has reality television become really boring?

I should start off by saying that, by reality, I primarily mean competitive shows. And by competitive shows, I mean ones based on actual talent and skills, judged by actual experts. In other words, So You Think You Can Dance, but not Dancing with the Stars. I did used to watch The Amazing Race, but when it became all about the casting, instead of the racing, I gave it up.

I have little interest in documentary-style reality, although I will cop to watching most of the first season of Toddlers and Tiaras—I just couldn’t look away. Hoarders could be interesting, but I think it would give the neat-freak in me seizures, or at least nightmares. In the past, I’ve enjoyed some self-improvement shows, mostly What Not to Wear and Clean Sweep, but these quickly became repetitive to me.

Is competitive reality suffering the same fate? Why do I no longer care who wins American Idol, Project Runway, or Top Chef? (Well, that’s not exactly true, Mondo needs to win Project Runway, but does anyone come close to him?) We’ve gotten to the point on most of these shows that the talent pool is incredible, but did anyone find their latest seasons interesting?

Are they pushing too hard on So You Think You Can Dance? Have they run out of good challenge ideas for Top Chef? Are the contestants too savvy and self-aware? Has stunt casting backfired? In short, can these shows be saved?

Or should I just be happy that I’ve discovered Modern Family and Parenthood?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Opera 101—Walk Like an Egyptian

This week, I enjoyed my second opera of the season. If Le Nozze di Figaro was light-hearted fun, Aida was opera with a capital O. Skipping from the opera buffa of Mozart, right over the bel canto of Rossini, to this grand opera of Verdi was quite a jump. All of a sudden—DRAMA! SPECTACLE!

Aida was not an opera I had any familiarity with at all, beyond the fact that it took place in Egypt, and somehow involved an elephant. It was definitely harder to relate to on a musical level than Mozart, with fewer standout “numbers” (you are not going to leave the theater humming, that’s for sure); however, the pageantry of the first half alone makes it a terrific introduction to the world of opera.

The Good:  The costumes were absolutely gorgeous, especially Pharaoh. The elephant was very well done and the triumphal march quite stirring. For the most part, the singing was very strong. Also, the woodwinds sounded great—as a former player of the clarinet, I always appreciate when woodwinds get a chance to shine.

The Bad:  I assume this is Verdi and this style of opera and not the performers, but the lyrics were unintelligible to me. Whereas I could follow much of the Italian in Figaro, here I totally had to rely on the supertitles. This may be why I felt the acting wasn’t as strong as in Figaro, which became especially problematic for the emotional tomb scene, where the production values could have been stronger.

Thankfully, there was no ugly. It was a fantastic night out all around. For that, I’d also like to give a shout-out to Indigo, for their fabulous food and even more fabulous policy of no corkage fees. We had a delicious meal and were able to enjoy a great wine (the Calcareous Vineyard Très Violet 2006—a blend of Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre) purchased on my trip to Paso Robles last year.