Sunday, February 27, 2011

Opera 101—It’s Hard Out Here for a Poet

Earlier this year, I was invited to a preview of Ensemble Parallèle’s production of Orphée by Philip Glass. Far from familiar with postwar concert music or contemporary opera, I was wary at best. However, with the inspiration and libretto being taken directly from the film by Jean Cocteau, my love of French cinema soon won out. The presentation was impressive and, although I had my doubts about some of the design elements, I looked forward to the production.

La Princesse (Death) and Orphée.
Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo 
I was not disappointed. Much to my surprise, I liked the music (and I’m sure the young Philip Glass fan that was my brother in high school would be shocked to hear me say that). Additionally, the singing was outstanding. I had heard a sample last month, but the full cast was really impressive, especially Marnie Breckenridge as La Princesse and Eugene Brancoveanu as Orphée. If you’ve been reading this blog since I started it in September, you know that I only recently began exploring the world of opera with my first subscription to the SFO. I don’t claim to know much about opera singing, but my partner in crime and all things opera, the Maratonista Minimalista, agreed that we didn’t think anything we saw this past fall had such consistently strong singing by all the leads (although some of the French diction could have been improved).

As for the production, while the film Orphée is already a modern, surrealist spin on the Greek myth of Orpheus (who travels to the underworld to rescue his bride), this staging went a bit further by adding a circus element to the depiction of the underworld—harkening back to another French director, Marcel Camus, who set his Orpheus, Orfeu Negro, during Brazil’s Carnaval. This concept ended up working very well and really elevated the second act above some of the sillier surrealist elements of the first. I particularly enjoyed watching the silk aerialist (and, of course, sfmike, who performed admirably as a circus henchman throughout). I would have loved if they had also used the Roue Cyr onstage during the deaths of the first act, although I imagine it may have been too dangerous to do that.

It’s really a shame there are only two performances of this thoroughly enjoyable show. If you can make it to today’s performance at 2:00 pm at the Herbst Theater, I encourage you to do so. I don’t think I’ll ever prefer contemporary pieces over some of the “classics,” but Ensemble Parallèle certainly made me want to explore modern music further and I look forward to next year’s production of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby. I can think of no higher praise.

[Disclosure: I received complimentary press tickets for this performance. Please refer to my policy page for more information.]

Monday, February 21, 2011

A Spelling Bee for Cheaters

On Thursday, 826 Valencia presented A Spelling Bee for Cheaters at the Herbst Theatre, raising over $100,000 for their writing center. I went primarily to cheer on a friend (who ended up finishing second—congratulations Sunil!), not realizing it would be one of the most entertaining nights out I’ve had in a long time.

Individually (usually celebrities) or in teams, contestants raised funds for the ability to cheat during the competition. Only one person from each team competed as a speller. The cheating menu included:
• Free letter ($500): You get a one-letter hint (limit 3 in a row).
• Try again ($750): Spelled your word wrong? You get to try it one more time.
• Ask your team ($1,000): Ask your team (or the audience) for their opinion.
• Look it up ($1,500): You may consult the dictionary for 15 seconds.
• Free pass ($5,000): You may skip to the next round without spelling your word (Adam Savage from Mythbusters used this on putsch).
No cheating was allowed in the final round.

The competition was hosted by some of the creators of the Tony-award winning 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, who provided hilarious color commentary on the words and spellers, including extremely creative model sentences, as for palaestra (a public place in ancient Greece or Rome devoted to the training of wrestlers and other athletes; “What happens in the palaestra, stays in the palaestra.”), Spaniard (a person form Spain; “Billy giggled when he learned the Spaniards were once a world power.”), and kumkum (a powder used for social and religious markings in Hinduism; Mary, put down that kumkum, we're Episcopalian.”).

Celebrities included the aforementioned Adam Savage, who made it to the final three, singer Tracy Chapman, who went out on gidgee (a small Australian acacia tree), and authors Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket) and Michael Chabon—the latter going out on kurdaitcha (an Australian aboriginal word for the emu-feather shoes worn on vengeance missions) after correctly spelling kraal (an Afrikaans and Dutch word for an enclosure for cattle or other livestock) in an earlier round. One celebrity I didn’t recognize was singer Thao Nguyen, who not only correctly spelled evaginate (to turn inside out; “ is not the website you think it is.”), but also sang a song using one of her words, locomotive. I loved her voice and unique style and will definitely seek out her music in the future.

There were certainly a few easy words (cow, jihad, spaniard), words I thought were easy because of French or Italian (oubliette, crepuscule, cenacle), other words I might have gotten through cheating (capybara, astrobleme, kulak), but then a whole lot of “are you kidding me?” words like kurdaitcha that I mostly can't remember. It was great fun and everybody was a good sport and in good humor. This group has done this gig in other cities, so if it comes to a theater near you, don’t miss it. I also think the cheating concept alone could be scaled down to use as a general fundraiser.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Oscar Blitz 5: Who Sees Short Shorts?

For the second year in a row, I’ve had the good fortune to make the live-action and animated short film nominees part of my Oscar blitz. Both sets of five nominated films are currently playing at theaters around the country and I highly encourage you to seek them out. You can see the complete list of theaters here. The films will also be released through iTunes on February 22, 2011.

While last year I was more impressed by the animated offerings, this year I felt that the live-action shorts represented a better collection. I liked elements of all five, but the standouts for me were The Confession, the story of two English schoolboys warily approaching their first confession, The Crush, about another young schoolboy (Irish, this time) who has a crush on his teacher and what he does about it, and Na Wewe, a surprisingly humorous look at a terrifying roadside incident during the Hutu/Tutsi conflict in Burundi in the 1990s. The Crush was adorable, but I think my personal vote would probably go to Na Wewe; however, I could see any of the five nominees potentially winning.

As for the animated shorts, the first two on the program were utterly forgettable while the final Pixar film, Day & Night, was cute but shallow. I could see The Gruffalo winning, because it’s very polished with big-name narration, but the real gem of this collection is the Australian film The Lost Thing: visually appealing, stylistically interesting, and a terrific combination of whimsy and nostalgia. There is no doubt in my mind that this should be the winner. Finally, as happened last year, the animation program included a few additional films. One of them, The Cow Who Wanted to Be a Hamburger by Bill Plympton, was absolutely hilarious and a must-see.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Oscar Blitz 4: This Time It’s Personal*

These past two weeks have seen me check off a number of films on my Oscar blitz list, all family dramas of (it turns out) escalating violence.

The first was The Kids Are All Right. I thought it was rather boring. If the central couple had been heterosexual, no one would have paid it any attention. Some might say that was the point, but that doesn’t make it a good film. An important one, maybe, but not one worthy of four Oscar nominations. I do think that Annette Bening gave a good performance though, and I would be perfectly fine with her winning.

Winter’s Bone takes the family drama up to the next level. It wasn’t a perfect film, but it was well done, with a real sense of place and foreboding. The atmosphere reminded me a great deal of Frozen River with Melissa Leo. Jennifer Lawrence is incredible as the oldest child of a more-than-deadbeat dad and invalid mother doing whatever she can to keep her family together and on their land. John Hawkes is strong (and creepy) as her uncle, but it’s Lawrence who keeps the film grounded. Even though I haven’t yet seen Rabbit Hole or Blue Valentine, I’m pretty sure that, if I were an Academy member, I would vote for her for Best Actress. I definitely recommend this one.

I’m still not sure what I think about Animal Kingdom. It was extremely disturbing and violent, but, at the same time, I found it fascinating. I think it was the dialogue; it felt very real. Like Winter’s Bone, it also focused on a not-quite adult trying to find his way in a world that is falling apart around him, but the star turn is definitely Jacki Weaver as the grandmother. Chilling. This film is worth watching for her alone.

On a lighter note, I also watched the street-art documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, which was great fun, although I’m still not sure how much of it was true.

Next up, The Social Network!

* Best tagline ever for one of the worst movies ever, Jaws: The Revenge, which also produced one of the best actor quotes ever, from Michael Caine: “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific!”

Friday, February 11, 2011

Comfort TV

I’ve spent much of this week home sick with a bad cold. Not feeling particularly awful, but rather completely exhausted. While you might think this was a perfect recipe for catching up on the remaining films in my Oscar blitz, I just wasn’t feeling up to watching them, or anything really. But then I remembered I had all those episodes of Downton Abbey saved up on the dvr.

Like comfort foods that you only eat when you’re sick, or feeling nostalgic, Downton Abbey proved to be the ultimate comfort television, managing to weave together my Titanic obsession, love of drawing-room shenanigans and questions of entail, and appreciation for the upstairs/downstairs mix found in Agatha Christie mysteries and books like Mary Reilly. And, as a bonus, gorgeous clothes.

I was thrilled to learn that a second season is already in production. If you missed this gem during its PBS outing, be sure to catch it on DVD.

In the meantime, do you have any comfort books, movies, or television you turn to when sick?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Opera 101—The Yeomen of the Guard

I have a song to sing, O
Sing me your song, O
It is sung to the moon by a love-lorn loon
Who fled from the mocking throng-o

It's the song of a merry man moping mum
Whose soul was sad and his glance was glum
Who sipped no sup and who craved no crumb
As he sighed for the love of a lady

Hey-di, hey-di, misery me, lack-a-day-de
He sipped no sup and he craved no crumb
As he sighed for the love of a lady

Last night, I saw an excellent production of The Yeomen of the Guard (or The Merryman and His Maid) by the Lamplighters Music Theatre. I am a big Gilbert & Sullivan fan and am always happy to see their works performed live (except for Jonathan Miller’s Mikado, which I really, really would love to erase from my memory à la Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).

While Yeomen is certainly not the most popular of the Savoy Operas, it was the favorite of both W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, a pair who famously agreed on very little. It is also considered to be their most “operatic” work, both in terms of its score and its sentiment, which is darker than their usual topsy-turvy stories. In fact, it is from this opera that Gilbert chose the words for Sullivan’s memorial next to the Savoy Theatre.

Is life a boon?
If so, it must befall
That Death, whene’er he call
Must call too soon.

The Lamplighters brought out the lighter touches in the relatively serious subject, but I was happy to see that their singing did the work justice. I particularly enjoyed Amy Foote as Elsie Maynard and F. Lawrence Ewing as Jack Point, who had the daunting task of singing one of the most beloved duets in the Gilbert & Sullivan repertoire (quoted above). Behrend Eilers as Wilfred Shadbolt also stood out for me. Really, there was no weak link, although perhaps Kathryn Schumacher as Dame Carruthers lacked a bit of gravitas in her voice. I can’t remember who played Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance this past summer, but I remember thinking her voice was a bit too deep, so I would have happily switched them. In any case, this performance really cemented my good opinion of this company and I look forward to finally being able to see productions that for years I have only been able to listen to.

Yeomen is the Lamplighters second production of the 2010-2011 season, the first being The Pirates of Penzance (or The Slave of Duty), which I saw in August before starting this blog. They will close their season with the little-known Trial by Jury, the earliest existing Gilbert & Sullivan collaboration, on a double bill with the W.S. Gilbert play Engaged. The 2011-2012 season will include both H.M.S. Pinafore (or The Lass That Loved A Sailor) and The Gondoliers (or The King of Barataria).

Friday, February 4, 2011

La Ciccia

I don’t normally write about food here, but I had such an amazing dinner earlier this week, I just had to. La Ciccia is a Sardinian restaurant located on the edge of Noe Valley near Glen Park. It was recently featured in a New York Times article on San Francisco Italian restaurants, but I’ve wanted to try it since it was featured on Check, Please! Bay Area. Seeing everyone on that show praising the restaurant so highly, and having recently watched the Sardinia episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, where everything he ate looked so incredibly delicious, La Ciccia quickly moved to the top of my list of restaurants to try. However, it took me some time to get there since most of my restaurant budget these past few months has been devoted to pre- or post-theater excursions.

In any case, I finally went, and it was delicious.  For antipasti, we started off with a plate of prosciutto, Sardinian flat bread, and an octopus stew in a spicy tomato sauce.  Despite being in public, I couldn’t resist “saucing” my plate, as they say in France. (Yes, the French have a verb for soaking up the sauce on your plate with your bread, and, while acceptable at home, one shouldn’t do it in a restaurant.)  For primi, we had two of Bourdain’s favorite dishes, Spaghittusu cun Allu Ollu e Bottariga (bottarga is a dried fish roe that is shaved over the fresh pasta) and Malloreddus a sa Campidanese (semolina gnochetti with a pork ragu). I think they’ve spoiled me for all other pastas; I would go back for either of those in a heartbeat. As a secondo, we shared the sea bream special. I’m not a huge fan of fish, but I really enjoyed this simple preparation. To finish, we shared the Truta de Arriscottu, a ricotta and saffron cake served with honey and almonds, a perfect dessert that wasn’t too sweet. To me, it had a taste very similar to madeleines, although no Proustian side effects. The wine suggested by our waiter (random side note: a gorgeous man from Milan), a lovely Cannonau, or Grenache, went perfectly with the food.

Heaven, absolute heaven.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Great Unread—January

Well, it’s the moment of truth.  Did you read your January selection? That book that’s been languishing on the shelf, or in your TBR pile? I finished mine, The Name of the Rose, on Sunday night, just in the nick of time. 

I’ve decided that it’s not a keeper. I loved the essential storyline, but it is very much the first novel of an esoteric academic and Eco gets way too bogged down in historical and linguistic details. Even though I liked it well enough, I can’t imagine myself picking it up again.

In a way I’m happy, because my edition, besides being a paperback, doesn’t really fit on the shelf aesthetically. (In a perfect world, the only yellow or gold on my bookshelf would be in my special boxed editions of Tolkien, but that’s a story for another day.)

At least now I get to contribute something interesting to our work bookshelf.

How about you? Are you happy or disappointed that you finally took that book down to read?