Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Opera 101—Bohemian Rhapsody

How do you know when you’ve become addicted to opera? Maybe it’s when your first thought upon realizing that you’ll have a few days to yourself in Paris is “What’s playing at the Opéra de Paris?” Or, more tellingly, you find yourself excited about a ticket to the relatively obscure Czech opera Kátia Kabanová by Leoš Janáček. In any case, I once again found myself at the Palais Garnier this week.

Kátia Kabanová was written in the 1920s, but takes place in the Russian town of Kalinov on the banks of the Volga in the 1860s. This version, directed by Christoph Marthaler, which first came to the Palais Garnier in 2004, displaces the action to what seemed to be the courtyard of a Soviet-era housing block. What I loved about this choice was that people would randomly look down into the courtyard from their windows, adding a touch of reality to the scenery. However, the staging posed other problems, most of all for the conclusion, when *SPOILER ALERT!* Kátia commits suicide. Also, the people sitting in the left-hand side loges must have missed much of the action in Act 1, which took place along the left-hand wall. Thankfully, I was on the right and very little was staged on that side.

The story of the opera is quite simple: Kátia, the young wife of Tichon, is constantly berated by her mother-in-law Kabanicha. While Tichon is on a business trip, Kátia sneaks off to meet Boris, for whom she has secret feelings. Eventually, Tichon returns and, during a great storm, Kátia confesses to Tichon in front of everyone about her affair with Boris and runs away. Learning that Boris’s uncle is sending him away, Kátia eventually throws herself into the river. Tichon cries over the body as Kabanicha matter-of-factly thanks the bystanders for their help. In this production, she goes and pours herself a drink and slowly sips it as the lights go out abruptly, which I thought was a great way to close.

Much of the cast were reprising their roles from the original 2004 production, including Angela Denoke as Kátia, who started off a bit weak in comparison to the other leads (Ales Briscein as Kudriach, Jorma Silvasti as Boris, Donald Kaasch as Tichon, and Andrea Hill as Varvara, the adopted daughter of Kabanicha), but found her voice as the story developed. In general, I was quite impressed with the quality of singing, although physically Boris didn’t really seem to fit his role of young lover.

Finally, I must say that I really could get used to seeing performances in such a luxe opera house; although, in the spirit of Opera Tattler, who is apparently also in Paris these days, I feel compelled to declare that I have found people here much more distracting and noisy than in the States.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Ballet 101—Coppélia

What do you see
You people gazing at me
You see a doll on a music box
That’s wound by a key
How can you tell
I'm under a spell
I'm waiting for love's first kiss
You cannot see
How much I long to be free
Turning around on this music box
That’s wound by a key...

From the automatons of Daedalus in Greek mythology to Collodi’s Le avventure di Pinocchio to April in the “I Was Made to Love You” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, authors and artists have been fascinated with the idea of animating the inanimate. The story of Coppélia is one of the most popular incarnations of this idea. Based on E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Der Sandmann (1816) with music by Léo Delibes, Coppélia is the story of a mysterious inventor, Coppélius, the life-like doll he creates, a young buck, Frantz, and the girl he loves, Swanilda. [Side note: What is with these ballet names? French being arguably one of the most beautiful languages in the world, second only to Italian and maybe Russian, you would think that classical ballet could come up with better names for its heroines than Swanilda, Giselle, and Odette, no?]

If you are a close follower of this blog, you may be thinking, didn’t she say she couldn’t attend this ballet when she was raving about Giselle? And you would be right. I was extremely disappointed that visiting my family in Paris would mean missing one of the few story ballets that the San Francisco Ballet produces each year. But then the gods decided to smile on me and it turned out that Le Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris was putting on the very same ballet at the same time.

Or, sort of.

While Coppélia is generally considered one of the most comic ballets, Patrice Bart’s take on the story is much darker than usual. He abandons much of the original choreography by Arthur Saint-Léon and changes the story radically, choosing instead to emphasize the role of Coppélius as seducer of Swanilda and rival of Frantz, which leads to some unique and interesting choreography for the inventor (danced splendidly by étoile Benjamin Pech) but leaves Swanilda (here played by première danseuse Mélanie Hurel) pretty much out in the cold. It seemed so deliberate (with all her best moves coming between obvious applause points) that I actually wondered what was going on at the École de Danse in 1996.

More importantly, Bart pretty much abandons the idea of the doll, Coppélia, that Frantz falls in love with (much to the dismay of Swanilda). So, while danced extremely well, and the orchestra was in fine form, I left a bit disappointed because I thought the doll was sort of the point of the whole thing.

Or maybe I just have too-fond memories of endless viewings of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the “Doll in the Music Box” number...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Opera 101—Trial by Jury

Hark, the hour of ten is sounding;
Hearts with anxious fears are bounding,
Hall of Justice crowds surrounding,
      Breathing hope and fear –
For today in this arena,
Summoned by a stern subpoena,
Edwin, sued by Angelina,
      Shortly will appear.

I almost missed this one. For some reason, I hadn’t noticed it showing up on Goldstar (maybe it didn’t) until the Lamplighters added an extra performance on Sunday night. Plus, it was raining and I had no one to go with. But my Lenten vow made me get over my laziness and head out to the theater. I wasn’t disappointed.

Jonathan Spencer and Jennifer Ashworth in Trial by Jury
Photo by David Allen and Joanne Kay, 2011

Trial by Jury is Gilbert & Sullivan’s earliest work that is still performed today. While only one act and therefore quite short, it has all the qualities I love about Gilbert & Sullivan operas: fun patter songs, light arias, and, most importantly, the mocking of British institutions, in this case the legal system. Usually paired with another opera (often H. M. S. Pinafore), the Lamplighters chose instead to present this story of a jilted bride suing her former fiancé for breach of promise with an abridged version of Engaged, a play by W. S. Gilbert about a man who is engaged to three women at the same time. I wasn’t particularly in the mood to see both, so thank goodness they presented Engaged first, otherwise I might have left and missed it. Supposedly it was an influence on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and I can totally see that. The heavy Scottish accents in the beginning were a bit tiring, but they were played for great fun and at times the play was downright hilarious. One thing I love about the Lamplighters is that they obviously take enormous pleasure in their performances and their joy is infectious.

Rose Frazier, Lauren Kivowitz, Leontyne Mbele-Mbong, and Chris Uzelac in Engaged
Photo by David Allen and Joanne Kay, 2011

So, mark your calendars for the 2011-2012 season, which starts in August at the Yerba Buena Center and will include both H.M.S. Pinafore (or The Lass That Loved a Sailor) and The Gondoliers (or The King of Barataria), as well as a sing-a-long The Pirates of Penzance (or The Slave of Duty). I really don’t want to miss any of their performances so I may just buy season tickets this time.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Gods Must Be Crazy

In a strange set of coincidences, I spent much of yesterday immersed in the recent economic crisis.

I started the day off with a viewing of Inside Job, this year’s winner of the Oscar for best documentary. It was well done, but it left a bad taste in my mouth that not even the incredible catfish at farmer brown could eliminate. [Note to self: Stop being intimidated by catfish, it can be delicious.]

Barring a few minor annoyances, it’s a film well worth seeing, whether you feel you understand a lot or a little about Wall Street’s role in the economic crisis. But it did provoke a bit of a crisis of conscience regarding my own employer, and it really made me want to pursue moving my money more seriously.

A lot of what the film covers is not necessarily new or surprising, but seeing it all laid out together was enough to make one sick. Some of the things that were surprising to me include how recently Wall Street salaries spiraled out of control, how many people did in fact warn of the dangers to the economic system, the complicity of the academic establishment and its incredible lack of disclosure (especially given what the FTC expects me to disclose as an amateur blogger), and (for the Buffistas out there) the quantities of hookers and blow involved.

Geoffrey Nolan, Juliana Egley, Carl Lucania, Brian Markley
In the evening, I was able to enjoy a much more comic take on the world of bankers, derivatives, and the Greek economic collapse, namely, No Nude Men Productions’ presentation of Hermes, a new play by Bennett Fisher, directed by Tore Ingersoll-Thorp. While I was there primarily to see the fabulous Juliana Egley as Anne, the entire cast was strong, especially Brian Markley as Brian. Admittedly, much of the philosophical speechifying of the gods Hermes and Hestia went over my head (through no fault of the actors), but I thoroughly enjoyed the more down-to-earth interactions of the businessmen, which often recalled the discussions about the “process” in The Spanish Prisoner.

If you are looking for a fun night out in support of local theater, or simply an excuse for dinner at farmer brown, I highly recommend it. The play runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 p.m. until March 26th at the Exit Stage Left (156 Eddy Street) in San Francisco. Very affordable tickets can be purchased here.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Lenten Sacrifice

I’m not Catholic. By all rights I should be, given my parents’ background, but they weren’t religious and gave up even baptizing their kids after the first one. Bizarrely, I did make my way to Congregationalist Sunday School on my own in third grade and continued to be a steady churchgoer through college and beyond, including weekly mass at my Catholic university (hey, all the kids were doing it). But the story of my finding and losing religion is one for another day.

One thing that has stuck, however, is the practice of giving up something for Lent. I find that it is a great way for me to be more mindful of habits I’ve fallen into and to break potentially bad cycles of behavior. Generally, it has been pretty easy for me to decide what to give up; something just made sense, whether it was meat, processed foods, or alcohol (although most people just thought I was pregnant).

This year, however, I struggled. There wasn’t an obvious food issue. Plus, I’m going on vacation with family soon and that could pose a lot of problems. Television? If I did that, I might have to revert to the “cheating” version of Lent that doesn’t count Sundays.* Something Internet-related? Getting to work on time (something that started slipping during the World Cup and has never really righted itself)?

No one thing stood out.

In the end, I realized that the change I most wanted to make was to get back to my stairway walks. Although I walk to work for 30 minutes every day, it’s over perhaps the least hilly terrain in San Francisco and not very challenging physically. So I decided to give up laziness, which would potentially address a number of smaller problems as well. While concepts have never worked very well for me (giving up gossip at work was an epic failure), perhaps this year will be different. I’ll get back to you in forty (or rather, forty-six) days.

* Lent is forty days long to represent the time that, according to the Bible, Jesus spent in the desert denying Satan’s temptations. In Western Christianity, the Lenten period begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes on Holy Saturday. A quick check of the calendar reveals this to actually be 46 days. Sort of how people say pregnancy is nine months, but in reality it’s forty weeks—a technical, but big, difference, as I’m sure any woman who’s actually been pregnant can tell you.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Coming soon to a bookstore near you...

Unless that bookstore was Borders. Then I guess you're out of luck. But you can, and should, find it online come October. Think of it as a birthday present for both of us.

From my favorite writer on the side, the person who got me through all-nighters at college with her crazy ballet stories, and who shamelessly got me into blogging:

Congratulations, Stasia!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Jane Eyre

Growing up, Jane Eyre was one of my favorite books. Even though I read it a couple of times back then, I haven’t picked it up again since I was a teenager. However, I do always try to catch the latest film version. The most recent is by Cary Fukunaga, with Mia Wasikowska (The Kids Are All Right, Alice in Wonderland) as Jane and Michael Fassbender (Hunger, Inglourious Basterds) as Rochester. The film goes into wide release later this month and I think it is one of the best I've seen at capturing both the gothic and romantic elements of the story, with a great atmosphere and just the right amount of gloom and drama.

In preparation for seeing this advanced screening, I downloaded a LibriVox recording by Elizabeth Klett to reacquaint myself with the story. If you don’t know LibriVox, they offer free audio recordings of books in the public domain. Since the books are all read by volunteers, the quality of the readers varies widely; however, the site often has multiple versions, so you can sample and pick which one you like. For example, the first reader I downloaded had mispronounced Hebrides and Caligula in just the first chapter, so I quickly abandoned her and switched to Klett’s reading, which I was quite happy with.

With the novel fresh in my mind, I must say that the choices of where to compress and/or change the novel for the screen were right on the money. I also loved how this version framed the story: The film starts with Jane fleeing Thornfield over the moors and ending up at the Rivers’ house (which actually takes place about two-thirds of the way through the novel). Her arrival and collapse on the doorstep sets in motion the series of flashbacks to her childhood and life at Thornfield. Eventually, the opening shots are matched later in the story as Jane’s tale plays out.

I had a few quibbles with some choices near the end, and Rochester was far too good-looking, but, all in all, they did a really good job with it. The two leads were very believable and Dame Judi Dench was characteristically fabulous as Mrs. Fairfax.

If you are at all a fan of the book, don’t miss this one.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Great Unread—February

Confession time: I have not finished this month’s challenge book, which for me was Possession by A. S. Byatt. I blame the fact that February only has 28 days. Yeah, that’s it. While it may be enough time to get sober or for a virus to spread across the globe, it was not enough time for me.

Actually, I got distracted by reading three books for my latest book salon (Books and the Bookish) and the end of the month did sneak up on me. Yes, Possession also fit into that category, but I put off starting it until too late. However, I’ve read more than a quarter of it in the last few days, so I hope to finish it soon. I’m pretty sure this one will end up staying on the shelf because, besides being a pretty hardcover, its very structure and subject lend themselves to repeated readings.

The “books” book salon was one of our most spirited discussions yet. (“Spirited” in many senses as my martini count reached the exalted heights of four, which is why I did not post about it the next day as per usual.) Books discussed included The Book Thief, The Historian, On Beauty, The Secret History, The Shadow of the Wind, The Thirteenth Tale, and Under the Net, all of which I had either already read, or now want to. It was the perfect example of the quotation that stood out to me in one of my selections, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: “None of us had any experience with literary societies, so we made our own rules: we took turns speaking about the books we’d read. At the start, we tried to be calm and objective, but that soon fell away, and the purpose of the speakers was to goad the listeners into wanting to read the book themselves. Once two members had read the same book, they could argue, which was our great delight. We read books, talked books, argued over books, and became dearer and dearer to one another.”

While it was great to have such an animated discussion, I think that perhaps our next topic (War, What Is It Good For?) will, and should, be more sobering. Again, in many senses of the word. It’s coming up quite quickly, so I really do need to finish Possession so that I can move on to Suite Française.

How about you? Did you make the most out of the shortest month of the year? Have you pulled down your next book from the shelves?