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Dec 21/10

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The date above is the date of the most recent reviews. The newer reviews will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: 61 Hours (Thriller); The Naked Tourist (Travel); Black Bird (Novel); The King's Speech (Movie); Don Carlo (Opera)

61 Hours (Thriller) by Lee Child, 2010

In this one, Jack Reacher (our celebrated hero from several other Lee Child books) finds himself stranded in a small town in South Dakota. The tour bus he’s hitched a ride on has gone off the road because of a major snowstorm. Thanks also to that storm, nothing much is moving. So Reacher’s forced to stay put. Wouldn’t you know, he gets involved with the local police in their tussle with biker drug dealers. Trust our Reacher to show the small town cops a thing or two.

Most of the best aspects of the Reacher novels are on display here. As the bus is going into a tailspin, we get Reacher’s split-second way of calculating things like velocity, distance and so on. Later, he figures out how long a car’s engine has been idling by the amount of snow melt on the ground under the exhaust. As one of the cops says of him, Reacher’s "the sort of guy who sees things five seconds before the rest of the world.."

I would consider it a special bonus of this book, as compared to any of the others of the series that I’ve read, that we get some background to explain how Reacher became such an exceptional guy. As a young kid, he says, he learned to channel fear into anger. That’s, apparently, what gives him so much energy for his derring-do. I also enjoyed his defence of his practice of trashing his dirty clothes and buying new ones. His system, he says, costs him about ten thousand dollars a year, but people who keep clothes in closets in their homes spend a lot more than ten thousand for those homes and everything that goes with them.

As a thriller writer, Lee Child shows uncommon writerly finesse. This evocation of a prison makes you feel like you’ve lived there:

It was hot in the prison. Cheaper to burn a little extra oil than to give the inmates two sets of clothes, one for the summer and one for the winter. He could hear their noise....the clatter of metal and concrete and the random crazy yells and the screams and the low grumble of other disaffected voices, all muted by doglegged corridors and many closed doors.

On the cozier domestic scene, even the description of a commonplace sound has a vividness that you don’t often get in such a small detail: "The percolator started burping and gulping out in the kitchen." As for what might be heard or not heard in nature, this distinction between two kinds of winter atmosphere is noteworthy: "Not the dull padded silence of fresh snowfall, but the weird keening, crackling, scouring, rustling hiss of a deep-frozen world."

In spite of such fine writing, however, we are dealing here with a thriller and, in that respect, this Reacher doesn’t quite measure up to the high level of some of the others. A crucial aspect of the plot is an arrangement between the local cops and the management of a nearby prison but Mr. Child doesn’t make the situation entirely plausible to me. In this installment of his adventures, Reacher doesn’t get much opportunity to demonstrate his astounding physical courage as an action hero; much of the time, he’s babysitting an important witness whose life is endangered. And that old device of having everybody grounded by a snowstorm sounds a too-familiar Agatha Christie note. Besides, Mr. Lee makes far too much of the cold. The plot requires lots of snow but not the constant references to the Arctic temperatures. (Makes you think Mr. Child must be some kind of hot house product.) When the scene moves to warmer climes, a Mexican drug lord is depicted as almost too horrible to be true but maybe we’re at a point in our civilization where we’re encouraged to think those guys capable of the worst possible things.

An on-going problem for me is what might be called a structural or systemic aspect of the book. Every few pages, there’s a countdown from the eponymous sixty-one hours marked at the beginning of the novel. But we have no idea what we’re counting down to. And who’s doing the counting? I don’t intend to get all pedantic about literary-theory but, given that we can’t attribute the clock-watching to any character in the book, it seems like an editorial intrusion on the part of the author. For me, that interferes with the fictional premise of the proceedings.

Possibly the oddest aspect of my reading of this one was that I fingered the villain about a third of the way in. That’s unusual for me, so it seems especially strange that it would occur in a book by an author whose books usually have me gob-smacked. Still, you don’t read Lee Child for excellence of the whodunnit variety. His books excel in other kinds of thrills. Of which there are lots here. Mr. Child has concocted an astoundingly complex and gripping climax to 61 Hours. The highest compliment I can pay it is to say that, at times, I felt quite nervous to be reading while home alone at night without my wife on hand to protect me.

 

The Naked Touristi (Travel) by Lawrence Osborne, 2006

Every once in a while, you gotta throw out some old magazines, right? You realize you’re taking the risk of missing something but you can’t act as archivist for the entire print media of the western world. Hence, I was tossing some old New Yorkers one day and happened on an article from a 2005 issue about some guy’s visit to stone age people in Papua. How had that one slipped by me? After devouring the article, I went online and found that the author, Lawrence Osborne, had published a book on the experience.

In the book, however, Mr. Osborne doesn’t jump right into the jungle. He wants to delay his journey somewhat, as in the days when travel was travel, when you had time to absorb the sights along the way, rather than entering a metal tube at home base and being disgorged worlds away. En route to Papua, then, he makes stops at Dubai, Calcutta, the Andaman Islands, Bangkok and Bali. In a few of these places – Calcutta and the Andaman Islands, say -- Mr. Osborne occasionally finds some aspects of local culture genuinely interesting. But you soon begin to suspect that he has made his name as a travel writer by despising pretty much everything. It’s all one big Disneyland, to hear him tell. Everything fake, for the sake of tourists.

Granted, Mr. Osborne may not have been prepared to appreciate what the more popular spots had to offer, given that his ultimate destination was about as off-the-beaten-track as you can get. Mr. Osborne's guide on his quest to make the contact with the Kombai – tree-dwellers who had never seen white people before – was Kelly Woolford, a lanky Missourian. He guaranteed that the aboriginals would genuinely be people who’d never made contact with outsiders, not, as on some tours, locals hired to put on a show of a primitive life style. As clients, Mr. Woolford takes only people whom he judges to be well prepared physically and mentally for the ordeal ahead of them: slogging through mud for days on end, battling mosquitoes that transmit encephalitic malaria, surviving on unfamiliar food, probably incurring diarrhea, but most intimidating of all – running the risk of being skewered by a bow from the arrow of one of the Kombai who didn’t take kindly to the intrusion of these strange white creatures.

Just five intrepid travellers qualified for the group that included Mr. Osborne. Contact with the Kombai was made through Papuans who spoke their language and knew where to find them. A retinue of some twenty or so porters, all natives of Papua, carried all the group’s provisions. As you might expect, The New Yorker got the best of this material. The book doesn’t have much to add to the Papua account. Still, it's fascinating. The visitors had to approach the aboriginals very carefully, usually sending an emissary ahead. A tense stand-off would occur, with the visitor holding out a bag of tobacco as a peace offering to a representative of the aboriginal family who was aiming a taughtly drawn bow straight at the visitor. Once the tobacco was handed over and approved, gentle brushings of hands between visitors and locals would take place.

As relations between the two groups relaxed somewhat, the visitors found out that, because of their white skin, the aboriginals thought the visitors' bodies would feel cold. When the westerners swam naked, the locals laughed at their sickly-looking bodies. The visitors were advised not to wash too much because the smell of soaps and shampoos suggested witchery to the Kombai. (Mr. Osbrone notes that, in some ways, travel is all about re-awakening the sense of smell.) Some of the Kombai got friendly enough to offer to supply the male visitors with penis gourds (kotekas), the only item of apparel, other than feathered ornamentation, worn by the male tree dwellers. The visitors declined the offer, not liking the sound of the procedure for installing the item.

In spite of his strongly personal response to most of what he encounters, Mr. Osborne does occasionally fall into the dull prosaic passages that seem to be lying in wait for any travel writer. Paragraphs giving background information and historical detail sometimes bog down. Like a true writer, though, Mr. Osborne can suddenly amaze you with a vivid image. He says that a small propellor plane waiting on a runway "had a frayed look about it, like a dog that has seen too many winters." And he’s fully capable of hilarious riffs on some of the absurdities a traveller encounters, as illustrated by the opening of one passage: "Government hotels in India are not really hotels; they are casual employment outlets for young men on permanent vacation."

But what makes him a really notable travel writer are his insights into the process of travelling. For example, this about an encounter with an aboriginal man who approached him: "In that moment...I realized that it was not I visiting him, but he visiting me. I was the curious, exotic ‘wild man’ standing in the rain in my strange pink shirt and bizarre-looking hat." On a visit to a spa en route to Papua, he notes a curious phenomenon that occurs in travel:

After all, the economic parsing of time that we have internalized since childhood falls away abruptly as soon as we are idle and abroad. For most people, the cessation of work alone achieves this illusion. In the destination spa, especially, you have too much time. Your days are empty, filled with curious frivolities that you have persuaded yourself are critical to your health.

One of the most interesting insights comes in this observation about what happens to a visitor in a foreign country:

You are asked to play a part, a part that is fixed in the racial memory of others. For the tourist, it begins to get complicated. Which part of you is real and which is the part? In your own culture you never think about it, but as a traveler you are forced to think about all the time. Because in reality no one is ever taken purely as an individual....

For me, that thought goes way beyond the business of travel and takes us deep into one of the mysteries of the dynamics among any members of the human species.

 

Black Bird (Novel) by Michel Basilires, 2003

Somehow, this one escaped my notice when it first appeared. It wasn’t until the author, Michel Basilires, contacted me regarding my review of his radio play about mile Nelligan that I became aware of him and his novel. (See the original item about the play on Dilettante’s Diary page dated Feb 21/05 and the follow-up on the Aug 2/10  page.) Apparently, Black Bird created something of a stir when it came out. That’s probably because it looks at the 1970 FLQ crisis in Quebec as experienced by a Montreal family with a French father and an English mother. As for their two young adult children, Marie sympathizes with the FLQ but Jean-Baptiste identifies more with the English side of his heritage.

Quite apart from its promise of political insights, however, it was the following passage, from the second page that made me sit up and take notice (we’re talking about a grandfather whose wife died a year ago):

This winter wouldn’t be as easy as the last, when grandmother’s death turned out to be a boon to him in so many ways, large and small. Small, because it meant one less person to feed. Large, because it allowed him to indulge his hostilities, his grudges against the neighbours, and his fondness for drinking, all under the guise of his grief.

It’s not often that a novel gives you such a startling look into the devious workings of one person’s soul. The family that this guy heads turns out to be pretty amazing too. The grandfather and one of his sons make their living as grave robbers, selling bodies to a doctor who needs them for some reason. When the family can’t pay their gas bills any longer, they secretly run a pipe from their furnace to the gas outlet in the basement of the funeral home next door. (The family’s already stealing their electricity from the neighbour on the other side of their semi-detached dwelling.) Only trouble is, they aren’t able to install a regulator for the gas flow, so the furnace blasts tropical heat into the house all winter long. While Jean-Baptiste huddles upstairs penning immortal literature, Marie runs around on errands for the FLQ. As a result of one such mission her maternal grandfather is accidentally killed.

Bizarre as their circumstances are, however, these characters don’t exactly leap off the page with life-like individuality. You never picture them as in a movie or a play. That could be due to the lack of a certain something in the dialogue. Apparently, Mr. Basilires doesn’t specialize in that art. But he conveys the characters’ inner lives very well. I found the motivation and reasoning of Marie especially convincing. Although one suspects that Mr. Basilires isn’t particularly sympathetic to the Separatists, he helps me to see their point of view more clearly than most other things I’ve read on the subject.

His evoking of the era relies on an almost slavish reference to detail. Nearly every famous Quebec incident you can think of from around that time is included, sometimes with barely any disguise. There’s a charismatic PQ premier who gets involved in a driving fatality one wintry night. Of course, the corrupt Quebec police cover up for him. (And, speaking of corruption, the book takes it for granted that being a Catholic priest goes hand-in-hand with pederasty.) The Prime Minister of the country is considered by some people to be a fag. The kidnapping and death of a British diplomat are included. There’s the stealing of a famous relic, an historical incident that perhaps only readers of the Catholic persuasion will remember. The notorious "sleep experiments" conducted in Montreal also come in for mention.

Moving away from the historical, things spin off into surrealist territory: a doctor experiments with dead bodies to produce a living creature that would, I guess, be a sort of Frankenstein. A woman’s dreams about her dead father somehow seem to become his dreams. An experience of an abortion seems to merge with a scene of rape by a priest. The eponymous crow that the grandfather keeps caged in the kitchen to annoy his first wife turns out to be the old man’s chief tormentor, to the point of plucking out one of his eyes.

Most astonishingly, the old miscreant subsequently delivers an eight-page speech in which he explains how, now that he has a glass eye, he sees the world very differently. This apologia sounds something like what you’d hear in a spiel combining bits of psychotherapy, a talk on Zen and a conversion story from Alcoholics Anonymous. All very fascinating, but not the sort of thing you expect in a novel that sometimes – for instance, in the account of Jean-Baptiste’s theatrical adventures – moves forward with great momentum.

A reviewer who tries to figure out what to make of it all can't help but notice that Mr. Basilires more or less preempts any criticism. Early on, he has Jean-Baptiste complaining that published books all adhere to pre-determined standards:

No wonder it was so hard for his own works to find their way into American, Canadian or even local journals. For not only had he no desire to write in the acceptable North American manner, but he realized he had no desire to read those works either. That no matter how much attention these works received, no matter how highly they were praised, by no matter what authorities, they still seemed to him sterile, empty, somehow not genuine. It was as if all those involved in the enterprise – the publishers, the writers, the reviewers and even the readers – were somehow fooling themselves. As if they were all engaged in a mutual hallucination of meaning.

Later, Mr. Basilires tries to make us appreciate that, for a true writer, it’s impossible to adhere to set formulae. Look at what has happened to Jean-Baptiste: "He’d thought he wanted to be Kundera or Calvino, but discovered himself some odd hybrid of Lautramont and Clark Ashton Smith." In a fit of exasperation at the very end of the novel, Jean-Baptiste decides never again to write in a realistic mode, because readers would always mistake it for the literal truth: "As if simply because they had absolutely no power of imagination, no one else had any either..." From now on, he declares, he’ll only write "about other times and other places, preferably places that never really existed, and mix up all the times together whenever it pleased him." He’ll describe "only characters who were complete idiots....And events that were clearly impossible, fantastic things out of fairy tales...."

In the face those warnings against critical complacency, far be it for anyone to try to pass judgement on a writer’s work. Maybe all anybody can say is whether or not a book works for her or him. My take on it this one, then: I found it to be full of marvellous writing, very ambitious in its attempt to convey a writer’s complex sense of the world, but so divergent in its various aspects that it doesn’t – if I may say this at risk of falling back on pre-determined standards – hold together the way you want a novel to.

 

The King’s Speech (Movie) written by David Seidler; directed by Tom Hooper; starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham Carter; with Michael Gambon, Guy Pearce, Claire Bloom, Eve Best, Timothy Spall, Anthony Andrews, Roger Parrott and Jennifer Ehle.

You might be asking yourself whether we really need another look at the private lives of the Britain’s royal family. Surely The Queen gave us enough voyeuristic thrills in that line to last a few more years? As for the Abdication Crisis, hasn’t that been done to death in innumerable films and tv series? Then what about the theme of a guy’s struggle, with the help of a dogged coach, to overcome difficult odds? Sorry, we’ve had too many of those movies. (Think Rocky, Chariots of Fire, etc. etc.)

But doesn’t this reprise of the old theme have unique possibilities? After all, we’re dealing here with a future king. (Rocky Rex?) Ok, fine. But Colin Firth as the Duke of York? No way. Mr. Firth’s too confident, suave and sexy for that wan and effete-looking princeling.

Well, all your reservations about Mr. Firth are going to disappear the moment you see him in the first scene. It’s the late 1920s and the prince is backstage at a huge stadium, about to make a speech over live radio on behalf of his father, King George V, at the closing of some big athletic event. You’ve never seen a guy looking so scared shitless as this prince does while trying to maintain his dignity. Standing there in his top hat, all the blood drained from his face, he looks like he’s about to face a firing squad.

This godforsaken wimp can’t be Colin Firth, you’re thinking, not the handsome, debonnair Colin Firth we’ve come to know from all his movies so far. Think again. I’m here to tell you it is Colin Firth, but no Colin Firth we’ve ever seen. In other words, this performance is one where Mr. Firth gives an astonishing example of what film acting is. Generally, we’re not in favour of "acting" here at Dilettante’s Diary. You know the kind of thing: an actor studies for months to acquire the habits and personal quirks of a character quite other than his or her self. You may admire the diligence but the result usually looks laboured and unconvincing. (Daniel Day Lewis often offends in this respect.) But Mr. Firth gives us, not just physical quirks, but the pain of a troubled man. And he does so with such authenticity that he brought me to tears many times.

But we’re not here to talk about my bawling. A critic’s job is to try to come up with reasonable-sounding explanations for why a movie was so touching. In this case, I think it has to do with the very complex character of the man portrayed and the particular circumstances of his situation. He’s a guy who’s had a duty forced on him, one that he abhors and one that a personal impediment makes very difficult for him to fulfill. But he’s been taught all his life that the only thing that matters is fulfilling one’s duty. He sees his much-admired and more-loved older brother relinquishing his duty. Now it falls to him, the younger brother – who feel so much less capable – to take up the slack for the sake of the family and the nation.

Another thing about his training – it has inevitably made him aloof in some ways, ever conscious of his elevated status, his privileges and the deference due to him. And yet, as a human being, he’s vaguely aware of some need to be more in touch with ordinary people, more amenable to other people’s needs and wishes. He knows that he can be stiff and unbending, not to mention bad-tempered. It’s just that it’s so damned hard for him to give a little. (As recent WikiLeaks revelations have made clear with reference to this prince’s grandson, it’s not always easy to maintain perfect aplomb and propriety in the role of the younger brother of the heir to the throne.)

Hence the conflict with his speech therapist. There are times when you can see the prince making an effort not to show his disgust, almost his nausea, at the many gaffs and breaches of protocol perpetrated by the therapist. But the prince has to endure because this therapist seems to be the only one who has it within him to give what the prince needs. While Colin Firth undoubtedly has the role that prompts most of the amazement and praise in this movie, Geoffrey Rush, as the genial therapist, makes his own beautiful contribution to what is, in many respects, a piece of teamwork. One of the things that makes Mr. Rush’s performance so engaging is that, while his character is obviously a genius with some special magic up his sleeve, Mr. Rush shows that the character doesn’t conform to the typical Zvengali role. There’s enough conflict in him to make him a more intriguing human. He may be demanding and autocratic in his therapy style but there’s an uncommon humility and pathos to him. And he has his own disappointments: he’s a failed amateur actor. In some ways, he seems at his best in his home where he’s kibbitizing with his wife and playing goofy acting games with his kids. Altogether, an unlikely candidate for the all-important task that devolves on him.

As the Duchess of York, Helena Bonham Carter is far more beautiful than the woman that the world knew through most of her life as Britain’s Queen Mother. But Ms. Carter does convey the regal style with wit and grace. The thing I find lacking is charm. People always said the most notable characteristic of the Queen Mother was the way she could convince people that she really cared. You don’t get that from Ms. Carter’s Elizabeth. There’s a pert, almost snippy side to her. However, she does show an aspect to the woman that most of us never witnessed up close – her deep love and affectionate support for her husband in all his trials. You begin to believe what people in the know said: that she was the best thing he had going for him.

It’s great fun to see other luminaries of the acting aristocracy in various roles, even if several of them don’t look much like the originals. Guy Pearce is believable as David, the erstwhile King Edward VIII, although Mr. Pearce comes across as more cocky than the man who was famous for being so personable. I enjoyed Claire Bloom as Queen Mary; Timothy Spall as Churchill; Eve Best as Wallis Simpson; Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop of Canterbury. And yes, there is, after all, a certain amount of voyeuristic pleasure for royal-watchers in scenes like the ones of the little princesses with their corgis. And, of course, there are, inevitably, some jokes about the fact that we’re dealing with royals: things like the York’s not knowing how to operate a self-serve elevator. And the Duke being encouraged by his therapist to swear. There’s entertainment also in the subterfuge required to arrange appointments at the therapist’s premises. Plus the silliness of the royal personage having to fork over a shilling on losing a bet with the therapist.

Predictably, we get some of the famous moments, as when the Duke and Duchess of York arrive at one of the Balmoral parties thrown by the uncrowned king and his paramour. The Duchess of York snubs the welcoming greeting from Wallis Simpson, brushing past her with the comment: "We came at the invitation of the king." (I formerly heard it as: "We’re here to see the king.") And the time when the Prince of Wales, overcome with grief at his father’s deathbed, collapses on the bosom of his mother, Queen Mary. She stands stiffly with her hands in the air, not knowing what to do.

One fascinating cultural/historical note is the reminder that radio was an amazing invention for the citizens of the early 20th century. Given that radio was always live in those early days, it was also a cause of considerable terror for some people. But the movie’s so much more than history, culture, royal panoply and gossip. Without our realizing it, David Seidler’s script has been steering the story towards a stirring ending that gives the movie’s title extra meaning. How much of what he has scripted actually happened doesn’t matter. The basis of the story is true; the rest is none the less significant for having been invented. What matters is artistic truth.

On that score, I found only a couple of faults. In one scene, old George V (Michael Gambon) lets fly with a long swatch of expository dialogue about the political and monarchical problems inherent in the reckless behaviour of the Prince of Wales – a lot of information that nobody needs to hear unless they’ve been living in a cave in Afghanistan or playing video games all their lives. A somewhat minor fault, a note of anachronistic dialogue, would be the Duke of York’s response to his wife’s badgering him about trying more speech therapy: "We’re not going to have this conversation again." People didn’t refer to "having a conversation" in that pretentious way until sometime in the last decade. Like expressions such as "moving forward" or the "world community,"  that word usage belongs so much to our own times that it would never have been heard from the lips of Britain’s royals in the 1920s.

In all other respects, though, the movie amounts to a near-perfect work of art. Glorious music from the likes of Mozart and Beethoven adds flourish to many occasions. Even the photography is notable: the Duke of York’s face is often shown in shadowy light – especially in the first scene – to help convey his feeling of being doomed. The memory of that unforgettable shot helps to convince me that what we have here is a powerful study of a human being that ranks up there with some of the best of the genre.

Rating: A minus (where A = "Absolutely Fantastic")

 

Don Carlo (Opera) by Giuseppe Verdi; starring Roberto Alagna, Marina Poplavskaya, Simon Keenlyside, Ferruccio Furlanetto, Anna Smirnova, Alexei Tanovitsky, Eric Halfvarson, Layla Claire; conducted by Yannick Nzet-Sguin; production by Nicholas Hytner; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus. Met Live in HD Transmission, Dec 11.

This production marked several firsts for me. For starters, it was my first time in a long while at a Met Live in HD transmission. A few years ago, I started out attending these broadcasts with great enthusiasm. (See my review of the very first one, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, on the Dilettante’s Diary page dated Dec 27/06) But we missed the broadcasts last year because we weren't back from the cottage in time to scoop up advance tickets. This year, there weren't any decent tickets left for most of the operas we wanted to attend, thanks to a change in the ticketing system that came as a shock to us. But you don’t want to hear about that fiasco here. (Oh, all right, skip down to *** below!)

Also, it was my first time seeing this opera. Until now, all I knew of it was the justly-celebrated bass aria Ella giammai m’amo, in which the old king laments the fact that his young trophy wife never loved him. So there was lots of plot to catch up on. We start in the forest of Fontainbleau, where the Princess Elizabeth, from France, is en route to Spain to meet for the first time her betrothed – Don Carlo, the son of the king of Spain. Wouldn’t you know, the sneaky Don Carlo intercepts her in the forest without revealing his identity. Naturally, they fall instantly in love. When she finds out who he is, that pretty well makes her day.

But messengers rush in with the news that there’s been a change of plan. By way of sealing a political pact between France and Spain, Elizabeth’s dad has decided to marry her to the old Spanish King Philip, instead of to his son. So now Elizabeth and Carlo’s relationship is one of mother-son. That, to put it mildly, complicates things. Toss in a jealous mezzo (Princess Eboli) who thinks Carlo should love her, a loyal friend (Rodrigo) who may not be loyal or a friend, a Grand Inquisitor who’s feeling his Cheerios and a ghost who haunts the nearby tombs; top it off with a rebellion against the Spanish king’s control of Flanders, roast a few heretics to celebrate the king’s grandeur – and a good time is guaranteed for all. (If it all sounds a bit much, you have to realize that Verdi’s audiences probably hadn’t yet got their hands on the Italian DVD’s of Star Wars and Avatar.)

In the intermission interviews, somebody mentioned that this is Verdi’s grandest – or most difficult, or most ambitious – opera. No argument there. By the end of the four-and-a-half hours, an audience member feels wrung-out just from witnessing the tour de force. Being one of the master’s later works (French premiere in 1867 and Italian premiere in 1872), it’s not one of those shows that sends you home with a lot of hummable tunes. But the music serves its great dramatic purposes well. If you can tear your attention away from trying to figure out what’s happening on stage, you’ll find that the orchestration’s fascinating. As you might expect, there’s great stuff for the chorus too. At one point, a group of six delegates from Flanders pleads with Philip, the most powerful man in the world, to release his stranglehold on their beloved homeland. These six men serve up one of your best Va Pensiero-type moments of soulful, soft singing in this opera.

A moment much appreciated, given that the overall mood is so harsh. That’s emphasized by the sparse, minimal design – with lots of blood-red and black in costumes and decor. The only place where the design doesn’t work for me is in the garden scene. The geometric background doesn’t suit the atmosphere of carefree leisure among the ladies. Elsewhere, Nicholas Hytner’s directing drives home the sense of urgency with physicality that seems brutally contemporary. At the passionate height of the scene in which Carlo and Elizabeth find that their love thrives despite the obstacles, they’re lying on the floor, he on top of her, both of them singing their lungs out. Rodrigo has to sing from the floor too in his dying scene – not propped up on one elbow as you might expect, but lying full out on his side, with one ear on the ground.

One thing the production makes very clear is that it’s the tenor’s opera. Roberto Alagana doesn’t always strike me as the most charismatic tenor in the business, but his assault on the title role is nothing short of heroic, impressively so. Apart from about thirty minutes of the total, he’s on stage all the time, singing at the top of his sterling voice. Even the staging emphasizes his predominance: several scenes end with the curtain falling behind him, while he remains alone, downstage by the footlights, either to soak up the acclaim or to carry out some business that will lead into the next scene. During the intermission interview, though, he seemed boyish and full of energy And he came bounding out for the final curtain call as though he was ready to take on another opera pronto.

Another of the firsts for me was hearing the up-and-coming Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya. Both The New Yorker and Opera News recently featured profiles of her. An image that has set her style for many people is the news photo of her in a long gown on the back of a motorcycle, her blonde hair streaming out behind her, as she races to the airport, after a morning audition in London, for an engagement that night in Moscow. Not surprisingly, Opera News didn’t mention (as did The New Yorker) her tempestuous, diva-like behaviour in various hotels around the world, or the string of husbands (four – two official and two casual) she has already left behind her in her early 30s. Normally, we wouldn’t stoop to mention such gossipy details here at Dilettante’s Diary but, in this case, it’s impossible to separate the public image from the on-stage performer.

True to her publicity, Ms. Poplavskaya radiates tremendous theatrical presence; something about the still, feral quality of her composure compels your attention. Her unusual beauty – delicate, china-doll features and a wide jaw – makes her a soprano who, for once, looks like the kind of heroine she is supposed to be portraying. Her voice is gorgeous, rich and well-handled, but I would agree with the Times critic, Anthony Tommasini, quoted in the New Yorker article as saying that Ms. Poplavskaya may not have a "classic Verdi voice". For one thing, there’s a somewhat cavernous resonance to the voice that makes it hard to distinguish the words. And then there’s the question of the top notes: they’re there, and they’re true, but they don’t quite have the ring of confidence and authority that would make you feel the way you want a Verdi soprano to make you feel.

No question about Simon Keenlyside’s grabbing you by the throat with his Rodrigo. In fact, Mr. Keenlyside’s massive baritone seems almost at odds with his preppy good looks. It’s one of the loudest, lustiest baritone voices around. I don’t hear a lot of finesse or nuance in the singing but Mr. Keenlyside’s energy in the role of Rodrigo propels many scenes forward in this production. No fault of his, however, that his character’s meaning was never very clear to me. In that he’s the buddy to the star, he seems to fulfill a sort of Mercutio or Horatio role. Or maybe it’s more like a Rozencrantz/Guildenstern shtick, given that the king asks him to spy on the prince. But then Rodrigo up and announces to Don Carlo that he’s decided to die for him. This scene – in which Rodrigo professes such love for Don Carlo – was the only point at which Mr. Alagna’s acting didn’t measure up to the occasion. He looked as if it would have meant more to him if his friend had offered to give up his spot on the World Cup Soccer Team for him. Maybe the bromance that Rodrigo thought they were living was just too much for any red-blooded Italian tenor to buy into.

One thing adding to my enjoyment of Mr. Keenlyside’s performance was the memory of his interview with Bill Richardson, as broadcast the previous Saturday on CBC Radio’s "Saturday Afternoon at the Opera". Mr. Keenlyside offered some of the most thoughtful remarks that I’ve heard from any singer on the art of opera. As I recall, one of the points he made was that it doesn’t make any sense for a director to push singers around like marionettes without any regard to what’s happening in the music. What’s being sung is the most important thing; the appropriate action will flow from that. Another point from the interview might be considered a kind of distraction in the context of listening to the opera, but it was fun to recall Mr. Keeenlyside’s mentioning the strange experience of finding himself on the Met stage one minute and the next minute (so to speak) on his tractor in the rain at his farm in Wales.

He was particularly touching on the subject of his little boy. When asked if he would consider sending his son to the choir school that he himself had attended as a boarder, Mr. Keenlyside said definitely not. At least, not as a boarder. At that tender age, he insisted, a kid should be surrounded by the love of his home, not buffeted by a lot of strangers. But one happy result of Mr. Keenlyside’s having attended a good choir school was that, at the end of the interview, we had the pleasure of hearing his pure, innocent boy soprano singing solo on a recording of "Good King Wenceslas.." It’s not often that you have something like that ringing in your ears when you’re watching some macho baritone strut his stuff on the Met stage.

Getting back to which, and the performance thereon of Don Carlo -- the two other major roles were well performed but one was dramatically much less satisfying than the other. As King Philip, Ferruccio Ferlanetto delivered the famous monologue superbly. In fact, it was perhaps the only moment of the opera that engaged me emotionally. Towards the end of the piece, it gave me a catch in the throat when he suddenly made me think of a little kid who’s heart-broken because his mommy has abandoned him. Anna Smirnova, who played the jealous Princess Eboli, has a luscious voice but the composer was far too generous to the character. You had to wonder whether good old Verdi was trying to bolster the fortunes of some young mezzo he had his eye on. The mezzo’s second big aria – when she repents for having ratted on Elizabeth and Carlo – stalled the action at one of its most dramatic points. Her first aria – an inane ditty about somebody dancing with a veil – was a complete waste of time.

Which was no slight consideration, given the length of the production. Still, the formidable challenge of it didn’t seem to daunt conductor Yannick Nzet-Sguin. In the interview during the second intermission, he looked like a kid who has just left off a gleeful session on the teeter-totter and dashed into the house for a peanut butter sandwich. We’re glad that he managed to fit in a reference to his French Canadian origins. His face, having filled out quite a bit, no longer conveys the starving-artist look that it had when we first knew about him, but the impish grin is as infectious as ever – an image of French Canada that we’re happy to have impressed on the world.

This interview, like all the others, was well handled by host Deborah Voigt, but there wasn’t the same excitement to the intermissions as in the early years of the Live in HD Broadcasts. Now, there’s a routine feel to the proceedings. Perhaps the Met has done everything it can think of in terms of offering us scintillating documentaries about behind-the-scenes matters. Still, we were welcome to watch the stage hands working during the intermissions – provided we didn’t need a bathroom break and/or a stroll in the lobby.

It was in the lobby that one of the most delightful firsts occurred for me. Before the opera, a violinist and a violist were playing duets for the pleasure of the arriving opera-buffs. Just as I sat down at one of the nearby caf tables, they launched into one of my favourite pieces of all time: Cherubino’s Voi che sapete from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. It turned out that the musicians were promoting the concerts of the Toronto Philharmonia Orchestra; cohorts of theirs were giving out TPO flyers. But I couldn’t help taking the string serenade in a more personal way: a welcome back to the Met Live in HD Transmissions.

One ominous note though. At the theatre where I saw the broadcast, three auditoria were packed for the transmission. While strolling the lobby during the intermissions and scanning the crowd as closely as possible, I spotted just three people who were clearly under the age of fifty. It appears that, while we may be doing a good job of sensitizing our young people to human rights, ecology and social justice, we’re failing to instill in them an appreciation of the things that really matter. One shudders for the future of opera.

*** Since you insist, here’s the sad story of our ticket troubles. We’re proud to be annual donors to the Met Opera Guild. That means that we get certain privileges – like use of the members’ lounges at the Met and so on. It also means that we have the opportunity to buy tickets for the Live in HD transmissions before they go on sale to the general public. This we did, in the early years. Because the seats weren’t reserved, we had to arrive more than an hour early on the day of performances to avoid sitting in the front rows, but that was fine. There was a good communal spirit in the theatre, with all of us picnicking on our sandwiches and bottled water.

In the past couple of years, we couldn’t get back from the cottage before the expiration of our opportunity to buy the advance tickets. But this year, we were back in good time. To our surprise, the Cineplex theatres had instituted a new system whereby the seats were numbered and reserved. That seemed like a good thing – until we discovered that there were only a few random single seats left, other than in the front rows.

Did that mean there were so many donors to the Met Opera Guild in Toronto? Well, no. Turns out that anybody who has a Cineplex "Scene" card can buy the advanced tickets. And how do you get a Scene card? By asking for one. You have to provide a bit of personal information so that Cineplex can track your purchases, but the card comes completely free. That means that anybody who wants to, can by the advance tickets for the Met Live in HD transmissions.

Which, in turn, means that the Met’s offer to let Guild Members buy the tickets in advance of the general public means absolutely nothing. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the Met’s promise is fraudulent, but it’s at least misleading. Not that getting tickets in advance of the hoi polloi is our only reason for donating to the Met. But, let’s face it, since we don’t find ourselves hanging around much in Manhattan, our opportunities to take advantage of the other perks for Guild members are rather limited. So the chance to get tickets to the HD transmissions was the one tangible advantage that we thought we could lay claim to. And now we realize that it’s an illusory advantage.

Do we have a legitimate beef or are we poor-sport-artsy-fartsies?

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com