"Don't go. It's awful. Just a woman walking through the grass. Nothing happens." --So said a woman exiting the early showing of Terrence Malick's film "To The Wonder." And while her assessment was perhaps a reminder not to go to late showings of Malick films--they can be soporific--it was wholly incorrect.
Malick's films, at least Days of Heaven, The Tree of Life, and To The Wonder, abandon standard narrative cinematography, replacing chronology and dialogue with fleeting glimpses of life's beauty and wonder. They are a genre onto themselves.
The movie begins in Paris, where one might assume that the pastiche of delectable images is merely a temporary device used to provide context for the story that follows. A trip to Mont Saint-Michel, with the two comely lovers, Ben Affleck as Neil, and Olga Kurylenko as Marina, has one drooling over the prospect of a cinematographic European adventure film.
But then comes the shocking juxtaposition. Cut to Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Marina and her young daughter have accepted Neil's invitation to come to the United States. The opening scene here has Marina dancing ballet-like in the grass next to a soulless suburban subdivision under huge powerlines. Of course, the roaring Interstate highway is not far off. The contrast between the scenes shot in France and those in Oklahoma is disturbing and it's difficult at first not to see it as an indictment--though our need to get over that prejudice may be one of the messages that one can draw from this film.
At times the images land like punches, perhaps ten distinctive shots in the space of a minute. I found myself counting the lengths of the cuts and they came at short intervals, usually well under ten seconds. And there is very little dialogue. Affleck has just a handful of complete sentences in the film's two hours.
Rachel McAdams makes an appearance as an old love that blocks Neil's relationship with Marina; Javier Bardem portrays a priest who soberly reminds us of the tragicomedy that is life.
The languorous pace of the film will be anathema to most, but if, like me, you wanted to linger longer in some of the images of "Days of Heaven," then you will likely enjoy the film.
I went to tonight's Minnesota Opera performance of Puccini's Turandot with the expectation that I was not going to like it. The singing would be second rate. The staging would be amateurish. The costumes would be trite. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. The Minnesota Opera provided top-shelf entertainment this evening.
The sets and costumes were brilliant--which is just what you need to make a production of Turandot succeed. The stage was a series of three circular arches, with a central oculus, that surrounded a circular ramp. At the back center of the stage, at the focal point, one would see, depending on the scene, either a circle representing the moon, the same circle representing the sun, or a small square room containing the aged emperor. A large gong was suspended by long ropes that led off diagonally to the rafters. This staging was absolutely perfect for the Ordway. I estimated that there were 80-90 performers on stage for the big numbers and this was about as many as one could comfortably get on the Ordway stage.
The costumes were interesting and fit the opera well. Ping, Pang, and Pong wore garish aquamarine robes trimmed in either blaze orange, hot pink, or electric yellow--along with spats that were from the same color palette. One wore an aquamarine top hat with trailing feathers, while the others wore a hot pink bowler and a yellow boater, each with a tassel. Apart from those--created for comic relief--the costumes were coherent and, perhaps with the exception of the silken red outfits of the peasantry, generally of the Chinese idiom.
The biggest laugh of the evening came early with the Act I text: "But April did not bloom; the snow did not thaw." A close second was the Act II scene with Ping, Pang, and Pong where they are having cocktails and end up doing a dance number in long johns, replete with those nifty spats and twirling umbrellas.
The tickets were given to me as a Christmas present and they were great seats: row 5, center stage. I must admit that I wonder whether my enjoyment was attributable to being so close to the action. I recall my last Minnesota Opera performance, one where I was in the balcony, and I do not have fond memories of it--even though it was Le Nozze Di Figaro, one of my favorite operas.
The singing was acceptable. Scott Piper's Calaf was very good, as was Christie Hageman's Liu. Other performances seemed quite satisfactory. Although earlier reviewers were concerned about the quality of the chorus, they were in good form tonight.
This was certainly the best Minnesota Opera performance that I have ever attended. The house was packed--and properly so. The verdict: live opera can be fantastic!
Going to the opera tonight. Anxious about whether I can still enjoy live opera (when not at the Met). I think the Met HD broadcasts have spoiled me. Here's an old post evidencing my attitudes towards live opera vs. HD broadcasts. We'll see how the Minnesota Opera stacks up.
Confessions of an Opera Whore: Lucia di Lammermoor -- Artistic Nirvana
It is really quite difficult to imagine any artistic performance better or more enjoyable than the February 7, 2009 Met Opera HD broadcast of Lucia di Lammermoor. This was by far the most impressive of the productions in the last season and a half. Every aspect of every number of the opera was compelling and brilliant. Before attending this performance the thought had never crossed my mind that there might be a limit to the amount of beauty that one can comfortably absorb in an afternoon, but the cumulative weight of the gems strewn on the audience was crushing by the end. If I smoked, I would have definitely felt the need for a cigarette after being bombarded with huge runs of ethereal numbers, masterfully staged and performed. When brought to disc this will be the iconic DVD production of Lucia di Lammermoor and will not be surpassed for a long time. It may be one of the best recorded opera performances in history. The live HD Broadcast may have claim to the best opera “experience” in history.
The ballyhooed Anna Netrebko’s Lucia exceeded all expectations. One often hears of Netrebko’s great beauty, even her “sexiness,” before one hears praise of her singing or performance. From the way she is often spoken of one would think that she is the opera equivalent of another Russian Anna: Kournikova. But this performance removed any doubt that she is an impeccable, intelligent, controlled, and most gifted performer, a prima donna in the best senses of that expression. Her performance, which occurred only five months after she gave birth to her first child, was nothing short of astonishing. Her singing was ravishingly beautiful. She perhaps took no extreme risks and made few bel canto embellishments during the performance, but came through with exquisite high and sustained notes. Lucia’s first act aria “Regnava nel silenzio,” was convincingly delivered. She hit the mark during her duet with Edgardo, “Ah! Verranno a te sull’aure,” and her acting was captivating not just during the famous mad scene, but at every other time that she took the stage. Her mad scene will be difficult for anyone to surpass. Brava!
The singing in this performance was of a very high quality. Beyond Netrebko’s impressive vocal performance, each of the main parts was well sung. Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, a last-minute stand in for the ill Rolando Villazon, was vocally supreme. His strong and clear voice was a pleasure to listen to and in good form. I have recently wondered, particularly after attending Marcello Giordani’s weak performance in La Damnation de Faust, where the great Met tenors will come from. Beczala may provide the answer. His impressive stand-in performance in this soon to be iconic performance will place him in high demand. Similarly, Beczala’s countryman, baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, delivered a top-shelf vocal performance in the role of Enrico Ashton, Lucia’s wicked brother. His acting was also exceptional. Bass Ildar Abdrazakov, who sang the role of the Calvinist chaplain Raimondo, met the challenge laid down by the three main voices and was every bit as good. Colin Lee’s Arturo was wonderful too, as was Michaela Martens’ Alicia. Michael Meyer’s performance as Normanno seemed not to match the quality of the others, but his role is so minor that it could not detract from the otherwise nearly faultless performance of the rest of the cast. This cast proved that the Met has plenty of memorable voices at its disposal and that audiences can continue to expect and should demand the very best from Met vocal performances.
The use of a glass harmonica—a musical instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin that produces sounds that sound like the ringing sound made by a wine glass when a finger is drawn about its rim—was brilliant and effective. Its eerie resonances fit perfectly with the themes of specters and the afterlife.
I earlier asserted that this may have been the best opera “experience” in history. I say that after having sat on that thought for a day. This performance, like no other that I have seen in the last two seasons, showed that the experience of attending the opera live simply cannot compete with HD broadcasts. It was often obvious that the HD transmission format was increasing audience enjoyment. For instance, there is a harp solo that precedes Lucia’s first entrance. In the house one would probably not hear the harp particularly well—and one would not see Mariko Anraku Armonica performing this solo at all if one were there live, since the harp would be down in the pit. As it was, the Met cameras had tight close-ups of the exquisite fingerwork required by this piece. This greatly increased the enjoyment of this number. Then again, as Enrico rages against a reluctant Lucia during “Se tradirmi tu potrai,” he strongarms her and forces her to the floor, where she remains long enough to deliver a number of her own. One in the house would have seen a small heap on the stage. Instead, the remote audience saw Anna Netrebko from a perspective that was as if we were lying on the floor right next to her, within two feet, with our chin on the floor next to her face. Later, during the mad scene, Lucia’s actions are performed with detailed precision. The blood on the veil, the manner in which the veil is caught by the knife as Netrebko brings the knife to her own throat—the impact of these details and gestures was greatly increased by the close-ups and framing that the cameras provide. And at many points during the mad scene it was as if we were permitted to sit on a chair placed on the stage right in the middle of the action. Then again, during the two specter scenes, the first where a ghost appears during “Regnava nel silenzio,” and the other at the very end of the opera when the ghost of Lucia comes to Edgardo as he lays dying, the close-ups added great impact. The approach of a brilliant, white specter in both instances led to graceful caresses that few would be able to see from the audience. These intimate little extras greatly amplified the performance and made it clear that this new medium of camera-aided opera viewing has something on live attendance.
When records switched from mono to stereo there were those who continued to maintain that mono was the truer and superior sound. Then when compact discs were created there were those who said they could not compare to phonograph records. And now, when these HD broadcasts exist there are still no doubt those purists who will say that they cannot compare to the live experience. But I just don’t see how that can logically be the case. The purists who hold out for the superiority of live attendance are superstitious and wrong. Why would we not want to see what is going on? Why would we want to sit in the twenty-second row, instead of seemingly on stage amidst the performers?
So this is my basis for contending that this may have been the best opera “experience” in history. For these reasons, I believe the best opera “experience” must be an HD performance—and this was to me the best of the HD performances in the last season and a half.
It is true that I have spent my hours this week loafing, wandering.
I have traveled all over this island
Taking in the million sights:
The hand-painted tiles tied to a fence
In memory of loved ones;
The decked-out mothers waiting in the afternoon, cell phones in hand,
Outside their children's upper east side schools;
The parents carrying their children and promising
Food bribes of ice cream and candy
If they stop crying;
A city of beautiful people;
A city of a woman
Lying decrepit and crying on the sidewalk
Outside a Fifth Avenue church;
The brazen New Yorkers of unlimited ego
Who without apology cut a wide swath through life;
The artists, the business people, the would-be gangsters;
The mother describing the principles of chemotherapy to her grade school son
While walking south on First Street.
I have taken in the whole amazing lot of them.
And while my body was soaking this in and wandering aimlessly
My mind was gathering focus and I have reaped determination.
I have concluded that while
I have been so busy that my days are full
Of sweat, strife and toil,
Sometimes every minute devoted to work,
That I have indeed been a flaneur:
While busy, idle in attending the health of my soul,
While industrious, fecklessly inattentive to the deep needs of my life.
I will never again compromise my basic principles simply
Because avoidance is the easy path.
Such are the fruits of my perambulations.
And only now that I am finished with them
Do I look over my shoulder--
Though I know it is something I should never do.
Ten Recommended Classical Recordings: A Sampler for Those New to the Classical Scene
The following is a list of classical recordings that offer a variety of classical genres: opera, symphonies, keyboard, violin concerto, solo cello, piano concerto, and oratorio. Though it is mostly mainstream with respect to the represented composers, it reflects a variety of interesting sounds.
Because the list is intended for someone who is starting to explore classical music many of the recordings are now budget issues. If you have thoughts on the list or would like to pipe in with your own, please do!
1. Mozart: The Magic Flute; Sir Colin Davis, conductor, Staatskapelle Dresden, orchestra; Rundfunkchor Leipzig, choir; Moll, Schreier, Price, Serra, Melbye, Venuti; Philips Duo, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 1994.
2. Beethoven: Symphonies No. 5 and 7, Carlos Kleiber, Wiener Philharmoniker; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1975 and 1976, released on CD in 1996.
3. Bach: Keyboard Pieces, Toccata, BWV 911; Partita BWV 826; English Suite No. 2, BWV 807; Argerich; Deutsche Grammophon, recorded in 1980, released on CD in 2000.
4. Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto in D; Brahms: Violin Concerto in D; Jascha Heifetz; Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra; RCA, recorded in 1957, released on SACD in 2005.
5. Panorama—Edvard Grieg, two discs of various piano and orchestral works; Deutsche Grammophon Panorama, recorded on various dates, released on CD in 2000.
6. Bach: Six Unaccompanied Suites for Cello; Yo-Yo Ma; Sony, recorded in 1983, released on CD in 1990.
7. Mozart: The Great Piano Concertos, Vol. I—Brendel; Sir Neville Mariner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; Philips Duo, recorded in 1972-82, released on CD in 1994.
8. Handel: The Messiah; Sir Colin Davis, London Philharmonic Orchestra; Philips Duo, recorded in 1966, released on CD in 1994.
9. Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto No. 3 and Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1; Martha Argerich, Philips, recorded 1982 and 1980, released on CD in 1995.
10. Bach: The Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 1-4 (separate disc one); and Brandenburg Concertos Nos. 5-6 and Orchestral Suite No. 1 (separate disc two), Neville Marriner, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields; EMI, recorded in 1985, released on CD in 2004.