Available Light

In a 1986 interview, Jerome Robbins attempted to define choreography by saying that it was concerned with not only the way dancers move, “but the way they move in space— because that’s what ballets are about, which is that volume of space which is the stage. And the drama is how they move in it and around it, or separate from each other, or more come in, or are more on one side of the stage, move forward or backward. Unfortunately we can’t use as high as we would like, but we try.”

By the time he said that, there had actually been a modern-dance experiment which tried and even succeeded in using “high” as well. Available Light, choreographed by Lucinda Childs to music by John Adams on a set by Frank Gehry, seemed exactly created to fulfill every aspect of Robbins’s definition. It was, essentially, about how bodies move in space and in relation to each other; and it was performed on a two-story set, with one or two figures often appearing on a level above the rest, echoing and at times leading the group’s gestures. Acclaimed at its initial performances—first in early 1983 at the Temporary Contemporary in Los Angeles, and then later that same year at Brooklyn’s BAM—the dance has hardly been seen in the decades since.

Fortunately for those of us who missed its initial incarnation, this collaborative achievement has now been revived, and last night it was performed to an extraordinarily appreciative Berkeley audience, courtesy of Cal PerformancesAvailable Light is a highly mathematical work, which fits the aesthetic of both the steel-based construction-materials set and the synthesizer-plus-brass music. Ten dancers dressed in minimal costumes—four red, four black, two white—perform a series of steps in canon and segmented unison, facing diagonally in the same direction or straight forward or straight backward, but always aligned with the dimensions of the set. Three of these dancers are male and seven female, but the steps assigned to them do not vary by gender at all; the men could all be replaced by women, or vice versa, and the dance would feel the same. The colors matter, though: there are times when all four reds or both whites are doing the same thing at once, and other times when one of each color dances in unison with the other two, followed by the next red-black-white trio doing the same thing, and so on. Meanwhile the music pounds (or at time whispers) forward, and the steps relentlessly mirror its beat, sometimes even when the beat is absent. If this sounds boring, I have misconveyed it: there is something actively soothing in the ongoing repetitiveness of the movement, and at the same time something fascinating in the precise and highly organized variations.

Three moments in the hour-long performance stood out for me in particular. The first was when the John Adams music, after a brief silence, resumed with a honking beat that occurred at regular intervals. The dancers, who had been still, started to dance about two or three measures in—but the beat that they were keeping started with the off-beat (the silence between the honks) rather than with the honk itself. This was soon remedied and explained, because the music then developed a secondary, softer note that occurred between each honk, rendering the dance steps both prophetic and perfectly timed.

A second brilliant choreographic move entailed the introduction of an eleventh dancer—a man dressed in white—for certain sequences in the second part of the dance. He came seemingly out of nowhere and disappeared the same way, if you were not focused on his presence; but his inclusion altered all the arithmetical structures, so that if a black and a red person were placed on the second-story, for instance, that left exactly three trios garbed in the three different colors down below. Two and nine give altogether different possibilities from two and eight, and the choreographer made full use of them before banishing her extra man to the wings, only to call him back again for the dance’s conclusion.

The third moment was not, precisely, due to either the choreography or the music or the set, but to some combination of the three, enhanced by the remarkable lighting (credited to Beverly Emmons and John Torres). At a certain point in the seemingly measureless performance, the music fell completely silent, all the dancers disappeared from the stage, and the lights died down to a mere back-lighting of the lower part of the set. A normally oblivious dance or concert audience would have burst into automatic applause at this break, but in this case the Cal Performances crowd was so gripped, or obedient, or in some other way held that it maintained perfect silence for over a minute, waiting to see if this was indeed the end. That it was not the end only became clear when the music softly started up again and the dancers one by one appeared onstage—but it proved we had been right to wait so long, and the silence itself was memorable.

My one complaint about this excellent piece is that the dance alone, which uses an extremely restrictive movement vocabulary and never allows the dancers to touch one another, suffers from a lack of emotional content. But the dance does not have to stand alone here: it is supported by and enriched by the music, which does have an emotional content. The music moves toward something, and in doing so moves us—and it is also what moves the dancers, who have collectively and individually taken this music into their body (as John Adams so eloquently put it in his remarks afterward), thus making it into something it could never have been without them.

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Pacifica Shostakovich

When I’m in New York, good music is only a short subway ride away. But now that I’m back home in Berkeley, I have to range somewhat farther afield. Last night, my husband and I drove for well over an hour on post-rain, pre-rain, rush-hour highways to get down to Music@Menlo’s mid-winter concert, featuring the Pacifica Quartet.

And of course it was worth it. The Pacifica Quartet is always worth it, in my experience, and in this case they were playing a delicious program in which Shostakovich’s Third Quartet was sandwiched between Beethoven’s Opus 18, No. 6 and Ravel’s sole quartet, the F Major. These four outstanding players—great individually, but even better together—do Beethoven beautifully, as I’ve learned over the years; and getting to hear them do the Ravel, which I haven’t heard live since about 2006, was also a notable pleasure. But the standout of the evening, for me and I think for the rest of the audience, was Shostakovich’s Third. First performed in 1946, this five-movement piece speaks not only to all the difficulties of Shostakovich’s era (the Second World War, Stalin’s persecutions, the deaths of close friends) but also to the difficulties of ours. Not a moment in it is wasted on trivialities or anodyne prettiness; not a moment is without deep, persuasive emotion. This quartet seems to say, Yes, things are terrible now, and they will continue to be terrible, but perhaps we will survive for a while yet, if we manage to retain our sense of being human, collectively and individually. 

From the long, attentive silence that greeted the end of this powerful piece, I presume the rest of the audience was getting the same message I was. And it would not at all surprise me if Shostakovich’s quartets, which address so clearly the troubles of our time, were to experience something of a resurgence in the next four years.

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Swing Time

I’m in the middle of reading Zadie Smith’s new novel, and it’s one of her best, I think. It addresses all her usual topics—race and its various mixes, growing up in North London, power relationships between girls, sexual relationships between men and women, the allure of a special talent (whether it be beauty or intelligence or something else), and so on. But in addition there is a new subject, which is dance.  And Smith is very, very smart about dance, both in terms of how it feels to the dancer and how it affects the viewer.  Here, for instance, is one of my favorite passages in the novel: “…for a great dancer has no time, no generation, he moves eternally through the world, so that any dancer in any age may recognize him. Picasso would be incomprehensible to Rembrandt, but Nijinsky would understand Michael Jackson.”

Perhaps I am primed to appreciate Swing Time even more than I usually would, because in December I had an experience that mimics one of the key experiences of its narrator—the experience, in fact, that gives the book its title. Watching Fred Astaire perform in the movie Swing Time, this unnamed narrator is shocked to realize that a “shadow” sequence she had particularly loved features Astaire wearing blackface: obliviously, almost carelessly, as if it were completely normal.

A few weeks ago, fleeing from the inadequacies of La La Land, I resorted for comfort to an old Busby Berkeley musical, Babes on Broadway, that happened to be playing at Film Forum. It was made in 1941, and it featured the young Judy Garland, whom I have always loved, and the young Mickey Rooney, whom I have often hated—though in this case his virtues, and especially his dance virtues, came to the fore. The plot was typically silly, but the dance numbers were terrific, and I was just congratulating myself on having chosen this gem when we came to the final number, which lasted about ten or fifteen minutes in real time and seemed endless. It consisted of about eighty white dancers in blackface, backing up a blackface Mickey Rooney and a blackface Judy Garland—all performing in full Busby Berkeley style, with tapping and singing and stage-craft galore. As if to make matters infinitely worse, Judy Garland’s song (emerging from a white-rimmed pinkish hole in the middle of that heavily blackened face) was all about the birth of a baby named Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones. The thrust of the song—the thing we were meant to find hilarious—was the pride-filled mother’s ridiculously mistaken notion that her black son might actually become President someday, just like his namesake.

As we left the theater, I turned to my husband and said, “Sometimes nostalgia deserves a punch in the face.” We had been so confident in our retreat to the past, our choice of this particular alternative to the reduced present, that we had forgotten how naively cruel that old America was. And however bad things seem now (and they do seem very, very bad), I am pretty sure we will never go back to a time when it was ludicrous to imagine that a black man could be President of the United States.

 

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White Light

Every fall for the past few years, at the instigation of Artistic Director Jane Moss, Lincoln Center has put on its “White Light Festival” during October and November. The title comes from a phrase by Arvo Pärt, a famously religious Estonian composer, and the festival is meant to stress the spiritual qualities inherent in music, dance, and other kinds of performance. Even for a confirmed atheist like me, such a focus can be balm for troubled times, and this year the distraction from our anxieties (pre-election) and sorrows (post-election) seemed more essential than ever.

Of the twenty-some events offered over the course of four and a half weeks, I made it to only five, but that was enough to reap the benefits. In my case, the festival began—as all festivals should, I think—with a performance by the Mark Morris Dance Group on October 28. The four-work program, done without an intermission over the course of 70 minutes, including two works from early in Morris’s career (the 1983 Tamil Film Songs Pas de Deux and the 1984 O Rangasayee), one from the prolific middle period (Serenade, from 2003), and one brand-new work, Pure Dance Items, set to music by Terry Riley. All four dances had something to do with Morris’s focus on and interest in Indian dance and music, and each in its own way was revelatory. Serenade was charming, Tamil Film Songs was hilarious, and the new work was both structurally complicated and visually compelling, but the highlight for me was the incredible solo O Rangasayee, devised by Mark Morris for himself but this time performed by Dallas McMurray. It’s a famous work among Morris fans, because those of us who arrived after 1984 never got to see it: no one else, we thought (and apparently he thought), could perform this 20-minute masterpiece, set to Indian music and demanding unbelievable skill, energy, expressiveness, and control. McMurray, it turned out, could do it beautifully. It was if these extreme gestures and eccentric expressions of feeling had been generated not by another body and mind, but by his own—as if the past had been brought back to life again, but in a new form. Like everyone else in the audience, I watched it raptly, and it moved me beyond anything else I have seen this season.

The MMDG performance was part of a sub-festival within the White Light Festival, something called Sounds of India that was curated by Morris himself. Included in the array of offerings were a selection of concerts by Indian and American musicians, two dance performances by Indian dance troupes, several films, and a display of photographs by the Indian photographer Dayanita Singh (whose photos graced the Fall 2014 issue of The Threepenny Review). Of these, my schedule only allowed me to see the photos and the incredible November 2 performance by the all-female Nrityagram Dance Ensemble. Surupa Sen and her co-dancers were terrific in themselves—sinuous, precise, intense, and passionately expressive in their gestures, in a way that seemed to combine harem-girl sexuality with high-priestess seriousness. But beyond that, their performance gave me an insight into Morris’s own choreography that I had heretofore lacked, for the interpenetrations between his mode of dance and South India’s mode of dance have been long and long-lasting.

Between these two dance programs I had a little Western European interlude, in the form of Gianandrea Noseda and the London Symphony Orchestra‘s performance of Verdi’s Requiem. All I can say about this is that it was perfect (except for the interruption of one particularly quiet moment by an audience member’s cellphone—but we all soon got over that). Again, I sat engrossed for over an hour without intermission, this time being bombarded by choral and orchestral expressions of intense religious fervor. I let the religious part wash over me and just fell into the music, which I have never heard done so well before. It left me with a new understanding of why Simon Rattle might choose to abandon the marvelous Berlin Philharmonic for this sparkling English orchestra, and also with the conviction that whenever Gianandrea Noseda is conducting in my vicinity, I will go hear him.

And then, in the darkest days of mid-November, came two more events to brighten my life. One was William Kentridge’s puppet production of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, one of the earliest extant operas. I have seen this three-hour opera performed in the usual live-human manner, and though some of the music was great, it was otherwise a snooze. Kentridge, by shortening the production to 100 uninterrupted minutes, and by giving each of the central roles (Ulysses, Penelope, Telemachus, the three suitors, an old shepherd, assorted gods, even a character representing Human Frailty) to a nearly life-sized puppet devised and handled by members of the Handspring Puppet Company, managed to reinvigorate the piece completely. I was especially taken by Penelope—both the puppet representing her, whose still face seemed to alter in its expressions as she moved and “sang,” and the mezzo-soprano Romina Basso, who voiced Penelope’s lines and also helped manipulate the puppet. All the puppets had silent but visible human handlers (as in Bunraku), and all were tenderly cared for by their respective humans; Human Frailty, for instance, who spent the whole performance in bed (and who physically resembled an older, possibly dying Ulysses), was given breath by his handler, who tenderly moved the puppet’s ribcage up and down from beneath the covering blanket. Lighting and projections—which included moving and still images either drawn or assembled by Kentridge—helped magnify the setting to something that was never realistic but always touchingly appropriate. It was certainly the best production of Ritorno I ever hope to see.

Last in the series, both for me and for the festival as a whole, was one of Jeremy Denk’s stunning performances on the piano. The program, accurately titled Medieval to Modern, took us step-by-step from Machaut in the fourteenth century to Philip Glass and Ligeti in the twentieth, with stopovers at Byrd, Gesualdo, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and a host of others. It was strange and oddly touching to hear the Tristan and Isolde Liebestod (as transcribed by Liszt) come back from the Met performance I heard last month, just as it was weird to have Monteverdi reappearing so soon; I felt as if not only the entire history of Western music, but also my recent listening history, were being recapitulated before me. I had seen Denk do something similar at Carnegie Hall, where he linked together a series of pieces that all seemed to foreshadow or be influenced by ragtime; but this performance, if anything, was even more powerful emotionally, especially given the eloquent and pointed introduction Denk gave us beforehand. Technically, too, the concert was amazing: Denk had memorized all but one of the 23 highly varied pieces (he needed a score to help him through the Stockhausen), and to see and hear them performed this way, in unbroken sequence, was an experience I will not soon forget. At the end, as if to round out the story and return us to a prior moment of innocent happiness, Denk went back to the fifteenth century and played a lovely little piece by Binchois. It was called, appropriately enough, Triste plaisir et douleureuse joie.

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Ratmansky’s Serenade

Alexei Ratmansky’s Serenade after Plato’s Symposium is the first dance I’ve seen of his that’s set to American music, and it’s a knock-out. Named after the Leonard Bernstein score it faithfully follows, it is not only the best new dance in the ABT repertoire; it’s also one of the finest ballets, I think, that this phenomenal Russian choreographer has made to date. Thirty minutes long, it seems to go by in a flash when you’re watching it. And yet it’s lengthy enough, and various enough, to carry a strong sense of the Plato text on which both it and the 1953 Bernstein Serenade are based.

Naturally a wordless performance can’t reproduce precise philosophical ideas. But for anyone who has recently read the Symposium, certain images in this dance will seem to refer directly back to its Greek origins. In Plato’s witty and pointed discussion of love, for example, one of the seven male speakers, Alcibiades, arrives on the scene very late and very drunk; so does the equivalent character in the Ratmansky piece, embodied in a dancer who weaves his way unsteadily up the stage. In Plato, Alcibiades and Socrates have an intense, somewhat antagonistic, jealously loving relationship, and Ratmansky alludes to this by having the two men dance something that verges on a West Side Story–style “fight duet.” But even this moment is companionable in its way, as are all the dances—in trios and duets, in small groups or with the full group—that are performed by the seven male dancers who intermittently represent the Symposium’s named speakers.

The piece begins with all seven onstage, including one who lies down in the classic “symposium” pose often rendered on Greek vases—the body stretched out on its side, with one knee bent upward, the other leg lengthened, and the propped-up torso resting on a bent elbow. The first segment of the dance, set to Bernstein’s “Phaedrus and Pausanias” movement, introduces many of the gestures that are to reappear later: a “providing” motion (forearms and bent elbows held at waist height, with palms facing up and hands moving outward) that could refer to either speech or food, both of which get shared around in this story; a pair of dancers catching a third man as he falls backward and then quickly pushing him forward again, just as Plato’s disputing figures both catch and make up for one another’s hole-filled arguments; two men off to the side, one turning the other in a circle, as if to represent peripheral alliances. The costumes, too, ably pick up the classical theme—a half-body tunic in olive and black, a bronze top with Greek-style drapery, a variety of differently banded torso wraps—each individual, yet each in keeping with the others in terms of both color and style. Perhaps the most distinctive costume, a half-black, half-white, vertically divided outfit, is worn by the evening’s host, Agathon, who is a celebrated poet-playwright in the text: that is, just the sort of person who should be wearing motley garb.

Yet it is in Agathon’s lyrical solo, which occurs in the fourth movement of the piece, that Ratmansky’s divided allegiance truly comes into view. He may be channeling Plato to a certain extent, but his true loyalty lies with Leonard Bernstein, who named each of his five movements after one or more of the Symposium speakers. There is nothing particularly slow or measured about Agathon’s speech in the original text; it is Bernstein who has made his movement an adagio one, and Ratmansky simply follows suit. Similarly, Plato’s doctor, Eryximachus, is not especially quick-witted or silver-tongued (except to the extent that they all are), but Bernstein has written a brief but exciting presto movement for him, so Ratmansky gives him the fastest, most frenzied, most turn-filled solo in the entire work. (At Saturday night’s performance, which was the first of the two I watched, this part was executed with consummate grace and skill by Jeffrey Cirio.) At every turn, the choreographer follows the path laid down beforehand by his gifted collaborator, the composer. This leads at times to some curious omissions. Dance, for instance, could have conveyed Plato’s famous image of the once-doubled humans whom the envious gods have split down the middle, so that they are eternally searching for their lost halves; but since music cannot render this, Ratmansky has done without it. This loyalty to the music rather than the original text is not a shortcoming of the choreography. On the contrary, it may well be one of Ratmansky’s greatest virtues, especially when he chooses his music well, as he has in this case.

Bernstein was no doubt drawn to the text in part because of its open discussion of homosexual love. One can’t, however, portray homosexuality in music, any more than one can discuss love of immortality, or love of beauty, or the relative age of the God of Love, or any of Plato’s other fanciful subjects. So Ratmansky, even as he zealously follows the music, has felt free to jettison the Platonic themes that are not useful to him, including the overt homoeroticism. The seven principal dancers may all be male, but even when they are touching each other, the feel of the piece is rarely if ever sexual. It is, instead, joyously affectionate, occasionally competitive, often supportive, and frequently witty, with elements of Russian folk-dance and American soft-shoe brought in to suggest the idea of men relaxing together in each other’s company.

The one departure from this masculine atmosphere occurs in a scene that I take to be a reference to Diotima, the only woman who appears in the text. In Plato’s version, Socrates, who was her student, brings up her name and quotes her words directly, citing her wise opinions in order to instruct the other men. But in Ratmansky’s Serenade, this knowledgeable and instructive woman becomes, alas, a typically ethereal ballerina. Here we can see the choreographer struggling valiantly with the form in which he is working: he wants Diotima to be Socrates’ equal (and many of their gestures and steps are identical), but the inevitable lifts and turns of a ballet pas de deux, and above all the woman’s toe-shoes, brand her as a delicate, fragile creature. Plato’s eminently practical female philosopher would never have submitted to toe-shoes, and Socrates’ prolonged exposure to her life-changing wisdom would not have resembled a routine heterosexual pairing, as this duet unfortunately does.

But the Diotima passage is only a fleeting element in the long final movement, and it certainly doesn’t ruin Ratmansky’s dance. If anything, it strengthens our admiration for the all-male passages, making that seem the most natural and easiest form of human encounter (just as Plato thought it was—and Bernstein too, perhaps). Once the ballerina has disappeared through the golden sliver of space from whence she came, the real fifth movement begins, with Socrates and Alcibiades, the two named figures in that part of Bernstein’s score, dancing riotously together. Soon they make way for a series of quick solos, small duets, and all manner of comings and goings on the part of the other five. Toward the end of the movement, after the stage has briefly emptied, the seven men come dancing in from the left, one after the other, all holding hands. They turn to weave a garland with their line, passing under each other’s raised hands in folk-dance fashion, and then the whole group bursts into a concatenation of steps—sequential jumps, sequential turns, circles melting into rows that diagonally cross with each other—in a manner that exactly echoes the growing wildness of Bernstein’s music. At the last possible moment, Socrates, who has been marked out from the beginning by the red streamer hanging from his belt, leaps into the arms of the other dancers, and as they catch and hold him, his arms and body extended in a leftward-pointing line, the music and the dance freeze together, permanently fused on that final exhilarating note.

 

 

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A Three-Rattle Week

Even in Berlin, where he has lived for more than a dozen years while conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, you would be hard put to hear Simon Rattle in three different venues in the course of a week. But last week in New York I was lucky enough to manage just that.

The first stop was Carnegie‘s grand Stern Hall, where on Monday the 10th Rattle was conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra in Mahler’s Sixth Symphony. I had been to the same hall just two nights earlier to hear Gustavo Dudamel conduct the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra in Messiaen’s Turangalila-symphonie, and I didn’t think things could get much better than that. But even though nothing can match the vital enthusiasm of that group of young musicians—especially on a piece like this, which brought out a wild, earthy, life-affirming side of Messiaen that I had never observed before—the Mahler, under Rattle’s baton, was a discovery of a different order. In place of strength alone, the Philadelphians offered us delicacy, precision, and subtle modulation. The silences and near-silences were almost as telling as the emphatic passages, and the pathos of this lengthy, varying symphony came out in a way that showed Mahler at his best. I have heard Rattle perform similar miracles with his own orchestra, the excellent Berlin Philharmoniker; what surprised me was that could accomplish an equal degree of fine-tuning as a guest conductor (though granted, he and the Philadelphia Orchestra go way back, in a history of enormous mutual affection and respect).

Second up was a Thursday stop at the Metropolitan Opera, where I attended the five-hour performance of Tristan und Isolde.  Rattle’s conducting was only part of the draw here; I also wanted to hear Nina Stemme as Isolde, since I had been thrilled by her performance as Elektra in the eponymous Strauss opera last spring. Stemme did not disappoint, and Rattle’s conducting was beyond excellent: I would go so far as to say that the orchestral music was the very best thing about the show. It began with the overture, which started quietly, minus the usual audience applause for the conductor, because Rattle had sneaked into his post early so as to avoid that atmosphere-breaking greeting. And the music built and built throughout the opera, as Wagner meant it to, so that each resurgence of intensity carried us further along in the dream. Unfortunately, this particular dream was disturbed, if not shattered, by the idiotic staging perpetrated by the director Marius Trelinsky and his set designer, Boris Kudlicka. Converted into a noir-dark, movie-shaped rectangle representing a modern-day ocean liner or battle ship, the Met’s stage was overlaid with a series of video projections (mainly of a rotating compass) and interjected flashing lights, all of which reminded us every second that we were sitting uncomfortably in a darkened hall listening to an endless flood of music. This is not the feeling you want with Wagner, and particularly this Wagner, where a sense of timelessness—of becoming immersed in the waves of music, so that you actually lose track of the passage of time—is essential. In the end, I had to shut my eyes in order to enjoy Rattle’s and Stemme’s magnificent achievements.

Finally, on Sunday the 16th, I was back at Carnegie, this time in the smaller Zankel Hall, to hear Rattle conduct the youthful Ensemble Connect in a performance of Hans Zender’s 1993 version of Schubert’s Winterreise, with Mark Padmore in the tenor role. I will go anywhere to hear Padmore do Winterreise, and there is always something to be learned from the process. In this case, although I was nervous about hearing an orchestration of the traditional piano part—even with a small, 20-member orchestra—I found the event exciting and engaging and, when Padmore sang, thrilling beyond belief. The intermittent loudness of the orchestra (expertly guided by Rattle), not to mention the dynamic requirements of Padmore’s own score, forced the tenor to project at a volume I’ve never heard from him before, and I actually sat forward in my seat during those moments, amazed at the combination of vocal strength and perfect musicality. But the intense emotion of Schubert’s lovely song cycle got slightly short shrift in this mode, and next time, if I have a choice, I would prefer to hear Padmore do the Winterreise as he normally does, with one of his brilliant pianist friends like Paul Lewis or Kristian Bezuidenhout. As I said afterward to a friend who had also been in the audience, this Zender adaptation was like the Brecht-Weill version of Winterreise. Or as she said to me, “It was like Winterreise on drugs.”

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A Great Così

Così fan tutte is one of those Mozart operas I’ve never been able to warm to. The music is superb—possibly even better than in any of his other operas—but that only makes the cruelty of the plot more noticeable, and more despicable.  I once saw a successful Così in a little black-box theater in the Neukölln section of Berlin, but that one worked because it was an all-male cast, which was a bit of a cheat, since the whole plot hinges on what men think of women. And in the Berlin production, the music had been reduced to eight hands on two pianos:  fun, but hardly the full Mozart score.

Still, I never give up, so on Friday my husband and I set out for the LoftOpera production of Così in Bushwick. The tickets were only $30—an excellent sign, since it meant that young people and the otherwise-not-rich would be able to go—and the thought of watching an opera in an abandoned warehouse was kind of thrilling. Bushwick, too, is outside my usual territory, so it was rather exciting to navigate from the L-train’s Jefferson station through streets lined mainly with warehouses and garbage trucks, until we finally got to the inhabited portion of town, around Bogart and Morgan. On our lengthy and ultimately successful search for a restaurant, we passed by two young artist-looking guys sitting on a front stoop on Ingraham, and (in a manner completely foreign to Manhattanites) they spontaneously said hi to us, though with a definite note of surprise in their voices. “It’s as if we’re the first people over forty they’ve ever seen,” I confided to my husband.

LoftOpera itself turned out to be a bit daunting at first sight. It was indeed located in a huge abandoned warehouse, most of which was taken up by empty space, bike racks, Port-a-Potties, and beer stands.  Off at the far end stood the stage, raised and projecting out into the ground-level seats — most of which were, alas, backless benches. The air inside the warehouse was stifling on Friday night, even after the outside temperature had cooled below its high of 86, and all the audience members were waving their programs as fans. “We can leave at the intermission,” I assured my husband. This assurance was reiterated when the performance was delayed by twenty or thirty minutes due to problems with the L train.

The minute the music started, however, I relaxed completely.  It was a full orchestra, under the baton of Dean Buck, and they played the overture beautifully. When the first two singers, the tenor Spencer Viator (as Ferrando) and the baritone Alex DeSocio (as Guglielmo), opened their mouths and began to sing, I was a goner. There was no way I was going to leave before it was over.

Viator and DeSocio were not the only wonderful performers; the two women playing Fiordiligi and Dorabella (Megan Pachecano in the soprano role, Sarah Nelson Craft as the mezzo) were also terrific. Michelle Trovato, who was apparently ill, still did a lovely job as the maid Despina, and Gary Ramsey was a perfectly good and very clear-dictioned Don Alfonso. Moreover, all six singers could act (quite an unusual thing, in the opera world), and thanks to the director, Louisa Proske, they had been given real acting parts. For the first time in my life, I found the opera funny (especially in the first half) and moving (especially in the second).

Proske’s brilliant move was to present the four lovers as teenagers, with Don Alfonso as the boys’ teacher and Despina as the girls’ put-upon cleaning lady. Simply by reducing their ages and putting them in classroom desks, this approach made sense of Ferrando’s and Guglielmo’s idiotic willingness to take Don Alfonso’s bet about unfaithful girlfriends. It also made all the stupidity about love—the blind conviction about its permanence, the terror of infidelity, the mooning about at temporary abandonment, the anger connected with jealousy—seem to apply to these particular teenagers, rather than to men and women in general. And in taking a rather contemptuous attitude toward these young fools, we in the audience found ourselves in very much the position of the evil, string-pulling Don Alfonso: a realization which caused me, at least, to rethink my position and sympathize more with the young lovers.

Risks were taken here. Don Alfonso was presented (though with great subtlety) as an envious old homosexual, half in love with his boys and half resentful of their active sex lives with their girlfriends. Despina was markedly working-class—overweight, badly dressed, routinely angry, and not at all the sprightly, sexy little maid played more typically by the likes of Danielle de Niese. Both of these factors gave motivation to the vengeful plot inflicted on the young lovers by these two. And though the story needn’t be realistic to succeed—can’t, in fact, be realistic, given the problems of recognition and non-recognition that so often afflict opera plots—the removal of the usual coldly motiveless malignity made it much easier to stomach the cruel proceedings. There was also great humor in the portrayal of the two secretly returning young men, who were not Turks or Albanians so much as grownups in suits, with huge fake mustaches: they had been turned from boys into men and were successfully hiding behind their new roles.

By the intermission, I had forgotten my backless bench and my overheated self; I just wanted to stay on and see how the piece would resolve, emotionally. And I wasn’t disappointed. Every detail of the production had been thought through, so that the girls themselves, and not the boys, were the ones who chose each other’s lovers in disguise. (On first approach, the transformed Guglielmo and Ferrando had actually tried appealing to their own original lovers.) The change-over in the couples was signaled even with hairstyles, so that Fiordiligi wore her hair up for the first half of the opera and down for the second, while Dorabella did the reverse. And the usual hurrying-up toward the end of the plot, when the impostors disappear during the wedding scene and are almost immediately replaced by the grooms in their original personae, worked in a way it never had before, because these were confused teenagers who just wanted to avoid embarrassment and forget their terrible pain. That the pain became general at that moment—a function of love, beyond teenage angst, beyond opera gimmicks—was part of the great beauty and delicacy of the show.

Such performances in such locations create great camaraderie among the audience members, and a whole cluster of us headed off to the subway together, losing our way on the dark streets and then being found and rescued by other audience members headed the same way. After my husband and I had stupidly used our Metro cards on the wrong side of the L tracks and were unable to get back into the system on the Manhattan-facing side, the two friendly strangers who had guided us to the station gave us swipes from their cards. And these two guys left us with a great story, as well.  Having been delayed by the problematic outward-bound L, they told us, they had arrived at the warehouse after the overture was over and the singers had already begun to sing. Entering the huge, dark space, they saw in the far distance a tiny lit-up opera, which grew larger and more audible as they made their way toward it, until they finally took their seats and were swept up in the utterly convincing, life-sized performance. It was an image I will treasure as long as my own direct experience of this Così—and that, I suspect, will be forever.

 

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Looking at Art

All summer long, I’ve been waiting to see the four fascinating-sounding art shows that opened in New York while I was away. And now that I’m here, I’ve done so.

The first two were at the Whitney:  the cumulative Danny Lyon retrospective and the career-spanning Stuart Davis show. I always like going to the new Whitney, with its novel urban views, its wide-open gallery spaces, its more-than-pleasant cafes, and its great location at the foot of the High Line, and it’s a plus when the art on display is also good. Last year’s Archibald Motley show, for instance, was a revelation and a delight. I can’t say that either of these two new shows lived up to that level, but I was glad to have seen them both.

Danny Lyon is a photographer whose work I have admired since I published him in the first issue of The Threepenny Review, over thirty-six years ago. Those were his prison pictures, which still remain among my favorites, and one of them—the two prisoners playing dominoes at a square table, seen from directly above—is one of the outstanding photos in the Whitney show. There were many other good ones as well, in all sorts of categories, but the show is so wide-ranging and so comprehensive that there is inevitably a lot of mediocre material in it.  I am sure Lyon (or the curator) cut out a lot of pictures to arrive at this selection, but the cutting needed to be even more draconian: a smaller show of, say, two roomfuls of his best work would have served him better, I think.

The same was true, in a way, of the Stuart Davis exhibition that shared the same floor with the Lyon show, but in this case the problem lay with the artist, not the curating. For my money, Davis was best and most interesting early in his career—first when he started discovering geometrical abstraction, then during his delicately figurative Paris period, and finally when he happened upon his vibrant use of color and shape.  But having happened on it, he just kept doing it, sometimes at larger and larger scale, sometimes in square format, sometimes with a limited palette of colors—but always the same “look,” for decades. It got tiring, in these huge doses, and I left the Whitney exhibit feeling less excited about Stuart Davis than I was when I first saw the poster advertising the show.

The third alluring-sounding exhibit was the “collections” show, entitled The Keeper, at the New Museum. All the critics loved it and made it sound wonderful, so even though I am usually nervous about concept shows like this, I happily trundled over to the Bowery to see it. The woman at the ticket booth advised me to start on the second floor and work my way upward to the fifth, since it was a dense show that got denser as you rose. I’m not sure it would have mattered which direction I went: it was all too much for me, and very little of it struck me as art worth looking at. Among the finer bits were the balsa-wood carvings of animals on the fifth floor, the Henrik Olesen serious-joke-pictures about gays in art (“Faggy Gestures throughout Art History,” and so forth), and the pages from a Holocaust victim’s sketchbook (though I would say that wasn’t a collection at all, but a narrative of horrifying dimensions). But I couldn’t stomach the 3,000 pictures of people with their teddy bears, which took up two floors of one whole side-gallery, with the photos mounted helter-skelter all over the walls. And much of the rest of the show seemed to stem from either lunacy (the woman who displayed every one of the thousands of outer-space messages she had received and noted down, piled up in a stack on a table) or mere collectors’ zeal (the polished rocks). I thought the studio portraits of Ye Jinglu, taken once each year, didn’t hold a patch on Nicholas Nixon’s Brown Sisters—and that, in a way, exemplified the whole problem. The Nixon photos are art; the Ye Jinglu photos are just artifacts of a life, and not very revealing artifacts at that.

It was with some relief, and eventually great pleasure, that I ended up at the fourth show on my list, the Diane Arbus exhibit at the Met Breuer. This show, which focuses on her early work (1956 to 1961) but also includes a few well-known later pieces as well as the self-selected “Box of 10,” is beautifully displayed on gray pillars, one to each picture. As you stroll up and down the aisles, examining these early efforts that sometimes look like Arbus (particularly the ones with children) and sometimes don’t (the street photography could just as easily be Davidson’s or Friedlander’s, at times), you get an enhanced sense of the genius of this particular artist. My visit to the show was greatly assisted, I must admit, by my having recently read Diane Arbus, the long-awaited and excellent biography which my friend Arthur Lubow just published in June. But I hope that even without this guide, I would have been able to recognize the virtues of the Met Breuer show. Over the summer, in search of more Arbus fodder, I had twice been to a roomful of the late “Untitled” Arbus pictures at SFMOMA, and had been disappointed both times—in the pictures themselves as much as in the display. I’m glad to say that yesterday’s visit to In the Beginning utterly restored my faith in the photographer’s intelligent eye.

 

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Singing and Opera

I enjoyed the San Francisco Opera‘s new production of Janacek’s Jenufa—just not quite as much as all my friends said I would. They were right about the singing, which was beyond terrific. Karita Mattila as Kostelnicka, William Burden as Laca, and Malin Bystrom as Jenufa herself—the three major vocal roles—were as good as any opera singers I’ve heard in recent years, and the supporting cast was for the most part excellent. The orchestra music, too, was wonderful, thanks to visiting conductor Jiri Belohlavek. (My apologies to all the Czechs in the audience for the absence of diacriticals on these names: my keyboard just won’t manage them.) And the opera itself, though it ended weirdly (I’ll get to that in a moment), was gripping from start to finish, as Janacek almost always is. He not only had a great eye for plot; he also finessed every detail of every sung syllable, insuring that diction, feeling, and music all coincided perfectly. When you go to a Janacek opera—or, for that matter, to a Janacek recital—you often feel that people were actually meant to sing their thoughts and speeches.

But opera is not a purely musical form, and here is where this S.F. Opera production faltered. The direction (by Olivier Tambosi) was so perverse as to be annoying, and the result was that the characters and their fates didn’t always make sense. Unless he hired women singers who all happened to have some kind of congenital ague, which seems unlikely, he made a very strange decision in telling Mattila and Bystrom (and to a certain extent the other women) to move awkwardly, weirdly, stiffly, and ungracefully at almost every point of their stage appearances. Arms and ankles were flung out at odd angles; large stones (which littered the landscape, due to the coincidental prevalence of the word “stone” in the libretto) were used to prop up faltering steps; physical weakness appeared to stand in for emotional distress. It was all very strange and off-putting, and as far as I could tell had nothing to do with the experiences the characters were going through. Given how hard Janacek himself worked to make the language and music mesh seamlessly, it would seem a director could do the same thing for gesture and movement. But no, this Tambosi wanted to make his mark in some way, and he did it with big rocks and shudders.

Jenufa is an opera that takes some figuring out, because to a certain extent it is a “problem” play. That is, every element of the first two acts points to an unhappy ending for the main character: she has doom written all over her from almost her first appearance. And yet Janacek chose, for reasons of his own, to give her a kind of redemption at the end, allowing her to recognize the worth of the man she has finally decided to marry and overcome the sadness of her illegitimate child’s death. Short of Hollywood-style tampering (which seems unlikely in this case), there had to be a reason he decided to do this, and it is the director’s job, I would think, to create a setting in which this turn of events seems, if not natural or predictable, then at any rate acceptable. Here, the ending felt utterly tacked on, because no one had bothered to think through a directorial vision that would allow it to make sense.

I have been going to the San Francisco Opera since my early twenties, which means I lived through the Lotfi Mansouri years that preceded Pamela Rosenberg as well as the David Gockley years that have followed her. Only during that brief period of Rosenberg’s reign as General Director did we consistently get operas that worked as theater. I know we can never get the past back again (that is what almost all tragic operas tell us, in one way or another). But I do wish we could have another golden age of opera in San Francisco—an age in which theatrical direction matters, so that the director’s job is seen as something that is meant to help the performers get across their roles, and not hinder them.

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Terrible Movie, Great Concert

In the absence of any surer bet among the early summer offerings, I took a risk last Monday on a movie called The Lobster. After all, I love Colin Farrell and like Rachel Weisz, who were both featured actors in it (and if I had known Ben Whishaw was part of the cast, that would have increased the attraction for me). The advertised plot dealt with a society in which people were required to be members of a couple: if they failed to find a mate, they would be turned into an animal. This seemed a sufficiently whimsical premise to make for a possibly good movie.

Oh, how wrong I was. The Lobster is at once horrific and tedious—a difficult thing to carry off, but the director (his name is Yorgos Lanthimos, and I am whispering it here parenthetically just so you can avoid anything by him, ever) has somehow managed it. The acting style veers somewhere between Last Year at Marienbad and late Woody Allen, and the events depicted on the screen aim for a combination of the Stephen King of The Shining and the Ray Bradbury of Fahrenheit 451. None of these influences, however, can be blamed for the resulting mess, which is truly in a category of its own. The movie is not only pretentious and boring; it is also vindictive and cruel, to its viewers as well as its characters. It left my husband speechless—literally without a word to say—for ten minutes after we emerged from the theater, after which his first utterance was “I told you it would be bad!”

In desperate need of recuperative sustenance, we went on the following Friday to the San Francisco Symphony. I had two motives here: one was to hear Michael Tilson Thomas conduct Brahms’s First Symphony, a piece which never fails to delight me; the other was to listen to the North American premiere of a new Jörg Widmann piece called Trauermarsch, which featured (and was in fact written for) the pianist Yefim Bronfman. It will give you some sense of the evening’s power if I begin by saying that the first piece on the program, an eleven-minute “symphony” by C.P.E. Bach, was the only thing that didn’t pack a wallop.

It was smart of MTT, though, to precede the Widmann with an old piece of fluff, because it made modernity itself look good. Trauermarsch is like other Widmann compositions I’ve heard: unclassifiable, various, sometimes melodic rather than dissonant or difficult, but always distinctly of our time. As a collaboration between piano and orchestra, it is movingly interdependent. Only at the beginning does the pianist have a few notes of his own, played slowly against silence; after that he is constantly joining with (and competing with, and occasionally vanquishing) a whole range of orchestral effects that include a great deal of unusual percussion, both loud and muted brass, and a weird range of string sounds that include but are not limited to tuneful themes. The funereal subject matter signaled by the title is respected in the primarily slow pacing, but death is frightening and powerful here as well as ceremonially acknowledged: this is a funeral march to raise the hackles on one’s neck.

And then the Brahms was, if anything, even more thrilling. Listening to the rise and fall of the four grand movements, which pay tribute to without exactly imitating Beethoven, and which seem to mark the full range of human experience—from hope to disillusion to melancholy to invigorated resilience—I thought to myself:  Brahms is one of the few composers who actually comes across as a nice man in his work.  One of his key attributes is tenderness, a quality that is rare enough in the world at large but particularly rare in artists who are visibly trying to do something new. (Witness The Lobster, for an especially debased version of its absence.) Brahms seems filled with concern for us as well as himself. He wants to shake us up a bit, but he also wants to issue some kind of consolation—not false consolation, not an empty reassurance about our capacity to overcome loneliness or death, but the real consolation that has to do with the companionable, enveloping force of music. And at the end, as I stood among the other wildly applauding audience members (who included Yefim Bronfman—the eminent soloist had stayed on through the intermission just to hear the Brahms performed in the second half!), part of my pleasure derived from the sense that the message had been received.

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