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Apr 11/11

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Reviewed here: Le Comte Ory (Opera); Win Win (Movie); Certified Copy (Movie); Jane Eyre (Movie)

Le Comte Ory (Opera) by Giacomo Rossini; starring Juan Diego Flrez, Diana Damrau, Joyce DiDonato, Susanne Resmark, Stphane Degout, Michele Pertusi; conducted by Maurizio Benini; directed by Bartlett Sher; with the Metropolitan Opera and Chorus; Met Opera Live HD Transmission, April 9th

It premiered in 1828 but the first Met production opened just this March. Not hard to guess at a few reasons for the long delay. First, the piece requires extraordinary vocal virtuosity. But, perhaps more discouragingly, the plot makes Gilbert and Sullivan look like Sophocles and Euripedes. Here we have a French village in the middle ages. Most of the able-bodied men have marched off to the crusades. A scoundrel, one Count Ory, decides to take advantage of the situation. Arriving in town with a few henchman, he disguises himself as a holy hermit and solicits the women’s devotions and cash. The particular target of his own devotion is one Adle, herself a countess. But then Ory’s tutor, sent by Ory’s dad, arrives in search of the young miscreant. Accompanying the tutor is the count’s page, a lad named Isolier. He too is in love with Adle. Implausibly, not even the page recognizes Ory until, just before the end of the first act, his perfidious fakery is revealed. In the second act, though, the irrepressible Ory and his entourage disguise themselves as pilgrim nuns seeking shelter in Adle’s castle from a terrible storm. More tomfoolery ensues....

You might be wondering at this point why the Met would bother staging such nonsense.

Because they’ve got Juan Diego Flrez for the title role, that’s why. Lots of sopranos could handle the leading female roles very well but you rarely get a tenor like Signor Flrez. When he steps forward and starts belting out the high C’s and D’s with completely natural-looking ease and panache, you realize you’re in the presence of one of the wonders of the world. To me, his effect is simply electrifying. During the intermission interview, he said that audiences probably don’t appreciate how hard it is to handle the vocal demands of this role. How can he think we don’t appreciate what he’s doing? We’re not deaf! If I ever become a ruthless dictator with potfulls of cash on hand and the power to beckon anybody to my side, this is the guy I’ll hire to sing at my birthday party.

On top of his vocal pyrotechnics, there are other things. For instance, the not inconsiderable matter of Signor Flrez’s appearance: flashing dark eyes, expressive eyebrows and a wicked smile. (This guy is Elvis if only that damn Colonel Parker hadn’t kept him down in Memphis and had sent him instead to the Julliard in Manhattan.) Plus, the man has a gift for comedy. He may not be Jim Carey, quite, but his antics top most of what passes for funny in opera. Witness his unctuous behaviour as the sacrosanct swami, meanwhile throwing winks and nods at the audience. One bit that I especially liked was the way he handled the word "toujours" when consoling the countess – making a trumpet of his lips to pronounce the word to full effect, those lips meanwhile reaching closer and closer to the countess’s own.

There are so many layers to Signor Flrez’s performance. That is to say, his exuberance seems to express lots of things. Not least of them, on this occasion, being the fact that he had become a father for the first time less than an hour before the curtain. Host Rene Fleming informed us of this in her welcoming remarks, saying the new papa had just arrived at the theatre. I’d have thought this would have merited a huge round of applause on his first appearance on stage, but there may be a couple of reasons why that didn’t happen. Firstly, it wasn’t exactly a star entrance. Impersonating a humble hermit in his tattered robes, with his long hair and beard, Signor Flrez didn’t come on as exactly the Juan Diego we know and love. But the more decisive reason for no special response was probably that the audience in the house hadn’t been informed of the baby’s arrival. To me, this would have been a delightful occasion for a front-of-curtain announcement. Usually those notices have to do with some bad news about a replacement or an indisposition. It would have been a nice change to have an announcement for such a celebratory reason.

But I detected an even deeper layer to Signor Flrez’s dazzle. The way he was enjoying himself wasn’t just about a rascal putting one over on the village dupes, or even about a new father's exulting. The message that came across to me, at base, was something like this: my voice is a phenomenon, it is such a thrill to be able to sing like this and to share it with you, I’m having so much fun! Who could resist such infectious joy?

To imply by this that the production’s all about Signor Flrez, however, isn’t to belittle the contributions of the other singers. Diana Damrau, as Adle, sings gloriously, using her considerable charms to amusing effect, as at the moment when she pretends to faint on supposedly finding out that it’s Ory who has been trying to seduce her in the guise of a nun (whereas she’d already twigged). Joyce DiDonato, in the role of the page Isolier, sings perfectly and she has the advantage, unlike some sopranos in trouser roles, of actually having an appealingly boyish cockiness about her. Lest you think that I respond with unmitigated rapture to every singer, though, perhaps some slight reservations should be mentioned. Susanne Resmark, in the role of Ragonde (Adle’s matron), sings excellently, but her mezzo voice wasn’t always as full and resonant as you might want it to be, particularly in her first solo lines. I felt somewhat the same about Michele Pertusi as the tutor: very good singing but not the richest and most resonant bass I’ve ever heard. I was more impressed with the singing of Stphane Degout in the role of Raimbaud, Ory’s sidekick. Mr. Degout’s baritone seems youngish and a bit on the light side but remarkably clear and communicative.

All these great performances got a terrific boost from many other aspects of the production. Such as director Bartlett Sher’s envisioning the show in a rinky-dink theatre of the 19th century. Hence, a smaller platform constructed in the middle of the Met’s stage, with tacky backdrops flying in and out and, most entertainingly, a decrepit, flea-bitten stage manager tottering back and forth in an attempt to keep things on track. I love productions that emphasize the artificiality of frothy shows in this way. (Dilettante’s Diary may have been the only site in North America that liked the Met’s similar approach to La Sonambula. See DD review on page dated March 24/09) One very clever touch had the tottering stage manager passing behind Ms. Fleming, backstage, during her explanation that we would be seeing several "antique" remnants of old-time theatre. At that point, the old guy turned and gave her a sour look. Then he proceeded onto the stage and began the show. A lovely cross-over from reality to make-believe.

Then there was Mr. Sher's deft handling of the slapstick. Like when Adle and Isolier decided to trick Ory with some clever moves in a dark bedroom – a scene that gives quite a spin to the concept of a mnage trois. And when it came to the scene where the supposed "nuns" discovered the castle’s cache of wine, who could be blamed if the resulting mayhem brought Nunsense to mind? That could be partly due to the fact that the religious garb didn’t exactly adhere to any mediaeval standard. All the white, starchy frills on these costumes looked like somebody had gone to work on the nuns with a cake decorating apparatus. As for the robes worn by Adle and her companions, if Gilbert and Sullivan could have seen them, they’d think they’d died and gone to Heaven. (Maybe they have?) During their time on earth, such fabrics and dyes were surely not available. No matter. The profusion of brilliant colours in these designs by Catherine Zuber was intoxicatingly gorgeous: mauves, purples, magentas, pinks, yellows and golds like garden beds exploding with peonies, roses, dahlias, fuscias and impatiens.

And let’s not forget a nod to Signor Rossini. He may not be the most respected operatic composer of all time but he knows how to keep things moving with rollicking tunes. In quite another vein, some gorgeous acapella sections – as, for instance, when the "nun’s" chorus, was beseeching heaven for refuge from the storm – took me quite by surprise. Another shock came when the countess was beginning to succumb to the young page’s wooing in her bedroom. For just a moment or so, the music became intimate and more deeply felt. It almost seemed to be turning into Mozart. It didn’t, and the startle brought on by thinking it might shows the difference between the two composers. But you’ve gotta give Signor Rossini credit for providing the wherewithal to give everybody a high old time.

Such a high one, in fact, that I’m starting to change my mind about how to live when I become a wealthy dictator. Instead of blowing everything on a birthday bash, I’m going to send as much of my ill-gotten cash as possible to the Met. Yes, we should patronize our regional opera companies. But we should also do everything we can to support organizations like the Met that have the rare ability to show us that things can be done to sublime perfection. That’s what the Met is for.

 

Win Win (Movie) written by Thomas McCarthy and Joe Tiboni; directed by Thomas McCarthy; starring Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer, Bobby Cannavale, Jeffrey Tambor, Burt Young, Melanie Lynskey, Margo Martindale, David W. Thompson, Clare Foley

We open on a grey, sunless day. A path by the woods over looking a lake. A tubby little guy jogging along. We see him from behind: narrow, rounded shoulders, sweats and tuque. Up come a couple of really fit joggers who over-take him, quickly disappearing into the distance. Our guy gradually slows down and stops. Now we see his face: a mixture of wistful regret, resignation, self-deprecation and self-acceptance.

Ah yes, Paul Giamatti! He’s one of the few actors whose presence in a movie can be the major reason for making me want to see it – as is the case with Win Win. Here he plays Mike Flaherty, a not-very-successful attorney, with a wife and two kids, struggling to make a living in some small town in New Jersey. (Interesting premise that. How long since we’ve seen – or have we ever seen – a movie about a low-profile, non-achieving lawyer?) When he gets the chance to take over the guardianship of an elderly client who’s in the early stages of dementia (Burt Young), Mike jumps at the chance. Not that our Mike’s totally about kindness and charity. The main thing is that the guardianship comes with a monthly payment of $1,500 from the old guy’s estate. Quite a handy contribution, that, to expenses like repairing the furnace in your office building and taking down the dangerously creaky tree on your front lawn.

Only trouble is, the old guy’s grandson, a teen named Kyle (Alex Shaffer), turns up unexpectedly, having run away from his single mom, so now Mike has to deal with him too. The kid turns out to be taciturn and monosyllabic at first. But wouldn’t you know, he happens to be a champion wrestler and the high school wrestling team that Mike coaches seriously needs some major talent. Director Thomas McCarthy, as his own script-writer (with Joe Tiboni) requires almost as much talent to wrestle all this info into a lot of laborious exposition. And I won’t be giving away any plot secrets by saying that you can probably guess how things develop both on the wrestling mats and in the kid’s personality

But are we really ready for another Rocky, this time with the setting geared down to the high school scene and the boxing transposed to wrestling? Or, is the tacky, down-scale aspect of it all supposed to give us an ironic version of Rocky turned on its head (just like the wrestlers)? Either way, I can’t get very excited about skinny teenage boys throwing each other around. And, in terms of thrilling competitions, there’s got to be something wrong with the setup when even an athletic ignoramus like me can see through the strategy in a key bout, especially when you take into consideration the fact that my main focus is something like this: one day those kids are really gonna regret what they’re doing to their elbows and knees.

Not that there aren’t other themes in the air. The question of elder care, for instance. And the problem of what to do with an unwanted house guest. But neither of those issues gets a fair hearing. I kept expecting that Kyle was going to drop some bomb about the terrible thing that made him so elusive and secretive. But no, not much more comes to light than a case of not-very-exceptional teen-parent estrangement. So maybe the more important point is that there’s some moral ambiguity about something that’s going down. But any struggle in that department isn’t very apparent; it’s never addressed directly until the last few minutes of the movie. In a process that takes about five minutes, sin is exposed, the sinner repents, penance is done and all is well. As ethical dramas go, this is hardly Dostoevsky. More like Disney.

All of which is to say, the movie never grabbed me in anything but the most peripheral ways. As the minutes ticked by, in fact, it became more and more depressing to see Mr. Giamatti in this role. Even as gifted an actor as he needs something to work with in terms of script and character. Here, he’s reduced to mouthing banalities like, "One more point and we go to the state!" and "I just want you to give me another chance." No actor could make stuff like that sound interesting. That first scene on the jogging path by the lake was, as it turns out, our last glimpse of the real Paul Giamatti. Soon after, he was playing nicey-nicey with his little kids: some cutesy stuff about the recurrence of the word "shit" in their adorable household. And what’s with that smile that he’s suddenly busting? Makes you realize that you hardly ever see Mr. Giamatti smile. Trust me, the sight can be alarming. I guess it’s meant to show that the guy is trying to put a brave face on things, but it’s so patently phony that it’s hard to see how anybody could fall for it – the character’s associates in the movie or those of us watching from the comfort of our theatre chairs. .

That credibility problem looms so large because a slight movie like this can sometimes succeed if the people on screen are believable enough. But few of the other characters seem any more real than Mike. Amy Ryan, in the role of Mike’s wife, has a hard face in which the camera fails to find any sympathy. I can see the point in making her a suspicious person but it would have been nice to see a hint of love for her hubby and family, at least a possibility that she might not be wanting to bite somebody’s nose off all the time. Bobby Cannavale, as a studly playboy buddy of Mike’s, is thrown into the mix merely to try to add a little extra something. He looks like he’s wandered in from one of those bachelor-oriented sex comedies. There’s no believable connection between him and Mike. Jeffrey Tambor, as another coach of the wrestling team, makes an odd impression in quite a different way. It hardly seems fair to criticize an actor for his appearance but, let’s face it (if you’ll pardon the pun), the way people look on screen has a lot to do with the way we feel about them. In this case, it was hard to appreciate the character’s part in the proceedings, what with the constant thought pestering me: why does this guy look so weird? David W. Thompson plays a kid who’s introduced by way of providing a friend for Kyle. It’s very sweet of Hollywood to allow screen time for a geeky teen but this guy’s a bit too much of a dork to be plausible.

As Kyle, Alex Shaffer’s another story. I suppose Hollywood’s full of teens who can do the sullen, withdrawn thing that’s so emblematic of their generation these days, but you gotta admit that Mr. Shaffer does it very well. He’s not all-out truculence. There’s a waiting and watching quality about him that holds your attention. When Melanie Lynskey turns up, as Kyle’s mom, just out of rehab, it’s hard to tell whether she’s a nervous, insecure neurotic or a hard-nosed scheming bitch. But maybe that ambivalence goes with the territory. An actress whose name I can’t find does a fine turn as the somewhat kooky assistant, by no means the typical office bimbo, who works for Mike. A performance that strikes one of the most authentic notes where you’re least expecting it is that of Margo Martindale in the role of the mom’s lawyer. She has that mature, well-upholstered look of a middle-aged professional woman who’s given up pretty much on the glamour game, but she still has a certain savvy style about her, a sly I’ve-seen-it-all expression that doesn’t quite exclude a touch of humanity and humour. You’re thinking: I’ve run into this woman so often, in principal’s offices, doctor’s offices, banks and real estate agencies!

[As stated recently, we’re dropping the calibrated ratings for movies. Such a system seems to imply that there’s some sort of equivalence among movies that receive the same "score." But works of art can’t be given any such comparative rating. Instead, we’re now providing a Capsule Comment (CC) at the end of every review.]

CC: A down-to-earth, realistic family drama that’s too flimsy for even Paul Giamatti to rescue.

 

Certified Copy (Movie) written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami; starring Juliette Binoche and William Shimell; with Jean-Claude Carrire, Agathe Natanson, Gianna Giachetti, Adrian Moore, Angelo Barbagallo

The buzz about this movie gave me the impression it would be something unusual. And a quick scan of the mature – shall we say "sophisticated"? – folks in the auditorium before the showing suggested that lots of us had the same expectation.

One that began to be fulfilled in the very first scene. Somewhere in Italy, an English author is speaking to a small audience about his book on art. In any ordinary movie, you’d get about thirty seconds of his talk, to set the stage for what would follow. But here, the guy goes on for nearly five minutes with his philosophical ideas. Meanwhile, a woman in the front row is having trouble paying attention because her kid, a boy about twelve years old, is standing at the side of the hall, fidgeting with his hand-held electronic game and giving her signals that they should leave. Why is this going on so long? you’re wondering. What is the point of this peculiar scenario?

Then the woman and the kid are in a restaurant and he’s teasing her about being romantically interested in the Englishman. She denies it vehemently. But the next scene shows the man arriving at her place of business, a subterranean shop filled with copies of ornate classic statues. She has apparently invited him for a chat about his work. She’s fidgety and ill-at-ease. When she proposes going for a drive, the two of them depart in her car.

For the rest of the movie, they drive around, stroll and chat (when not answering calls on their cell phones), the only limitation on their outing being that the man has to catch a train that evening. As they move through the Tuscan landscape, even the photography and the direction keep emphasizing that this isn’t your ordinary movie. While they’re driving down a narrow street, you can barely see their faces for the vivid reflections in the windscreen of the car. Sometimes it looks like people walking towards us are going to go right through the camera. Several times, you’re not allowed to hear what’s being said: characters will turn their backs to the camera and whisper to each other; or they’ll be talking in normal voices, but we can't hear them because of the spiel of a museum guide in the background. And speaking of backgrounds, it’s often what the extras are doing that steals our attention. For instance, a bride putting drops in her eyes as she sits and waits to have her photograph taken. Occasionally, strangers emerge from these backgrounds to offer unsolicited advice to the man and woman.

Apart from such cameo appearances, though, it’s just the man and woman talking... and talking.... and talking, in English and French. They discuss marriage, kids, careers, the roles of men and women. The sharp twists and turns of the conversation give it an improvised feel, something like an acting exercise: if I throw this line at him, where will he take it? Given the almost exclusive focus on the two talkers, you can’t help thinking of movies like My Dinner With Andr, Before Sunset and Before Sunrise. And the fact that there seems to be a certain amount of fakery in the carry-on between these two brings to mind some of the kibitzing between George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

The movie’s so talky, in fact, that you could get almost all of it with your eyes shut. You’d miss the gorgeous Tuscan sights – winding village streets, stone buildings, expansive fields – but you can get that in lots of other movies. This movie, though, has something extraordinary that merits keeping your eyes wide open. And that something is Ms. Juliette Binoche. The woman’s face is certainly one of God’s greatest gifts to the screen. The range of expressions that flit across her visage is endlessly fascinating – from wistful and sad, to fond and loving, to pissed off and exhausted – all of them conveyed with excelling beauty. She’s constantly taking you by surprise. She can be charmingly European, in Italian or French, and then she can let fly with very contemporary American slang like "Aw, come on!" or "Bullshit" or even the "F" word.

As her foil, William Shimell is required to remain stolidly British and implacable, which he does admirably. And that’s not meant as any slight. To keep his cool so well on screen is surely an accomplishment for an actor who’s better known as one of Britain’s most distinguished operatic baritones. Surely, he must have been tempted to let it rip at various points in the movie. In fact, he does get a bit histrionic in a moment when he’s apparently angry. But even then, you’re not sure whether he really is angry or whether he’s just pretending to be, i.e. intentionally over-acting.

Because, you see, it’s never very clear what’s going on between the two of them. (If there’s any official explanation, it hasn’t reached me, since, as you know, I try to avoid most of the bumpf about movies before seeing them.) Have these two known each other before? Are they playing some sort of game? Are they assuming roles for each other? Is the woman just coming on to the guy? Is all of this merely a prelude to a love affair? Or is it an on-going part of one? Is there any truth to what they say about themselves?

Lots to mull over. You can’t expect me to plumb the intellectual depths of the piece, but even somebody with a rock-bottom I.Q. like mine can make a guess about the theme. Undoubtedly, it relates to the concept of the man’s book: the relationship between original works of art and copies of the works. The brainiacs who see the movie, then, will be asking whether the inter-play between these two tells us anything about real relationships, real marriages, real parenting issues, real conversations. All very droll and enigmatic. But some boors like me might long for a bit of story, maybe just a hint of a coherent plot, to help them get through the movie’s hour-and-three-quarters.

CC: Juliette Binoche offers the most tangible rewards in this airy, odd concoction.

 

Jane Eyre (Movie) based on the book by Charlotte Bront; screenplay by Moira Buffini; directed by Cary Kukanaga; starring Mia Wasikowska, Jamie Bell, Michael Fassbender, Judi Dench, Tamzin Merchant, Sally Hawkins, Imogen Poots, Simon McBurney, Sophie Ward, Harry Lloyd

First, you should know that you’re dealing here with a viewer who has very little history with Jane Eyre. I’ve neither read the book nor seen a previous movie version or a television series based on the novel. My knowledge of the story until now? Something about an innocent young lady falling in love with her employer, a domineering Mr. Rochester, and some trouble about a batty woman locked in an attic. To say that much, I figure, is not to betray our policy of revealing only minimal plot details, because probably everybody in the English-speaking world knows that much about the eponymous heroine’s tale.

There’s more to it, I find. Poor young Jane didn’t have what we would call an enriched childhood. Being an orphan, she was stuck with a wicked aunt who had a way of acting the way wicked aunts will. Then Jane was shipped off to a boarding school where the regime was even tougher. Seems educational authorities hadn't heard of kids’ rights in those days. But the drill equipped young Jane with lots of accomplishments, like speaking French and drawing. She graduated with honours and found a job as governess to a kid in Mr. Rochester’s house. I’m not sure what the kid’s relationship is to him but the important thing is that she speaks only French and that’s where Jane’s job qualifications come in. Weird things happen in the night chez Rochester – fires breaking out and a guest waking up with a gaping wound in his back. No fear, Jane’s school training enables her to treat such an injury. Maybe she got practice tending the wounds of the kids who got whipped by the teachers.

But don’t let that remark make you think I intend any flippant disregard for the movie. It’s the kind of thing you can really get behind if you feel that distinguished British actors need more opportunities to show off the Masterpiece Theatre skills they’re renowned for. Dame Judi Dench, for instance. She’s lovely as the sympathetic housekeeper; yet I can’t help thinking that the great dame is at her best when her characters have a bit more edge to them. She’s somewhat wasted as a nice person. On the other hand, it’s a relief to see Sally Hawkins as the ogre aunt. No more of that treacly sweetness and good cheer that Ms. Hawkins has inflicted on us in recent movies.

All this is beautifully filmed. It’s a great movie for knowing what it would be like to live in drafty stone castles in 19th century England, to run on the bleak moors in the wind and the rain, to feel your cape tossing wildly at your shoulders and your skirts billowing around you. What it doesn’t convey so well, for me, is what it would be like to be in love with either Mr. Rochester or Jane. In other words, what you’ve got here is the archetypal Harlequin romance without the romance. I think that’s largely because our Jane, in the person of Mia Wasikowska, is so repressed, so quiet, so proper and subdued – so lacking in what we fatuously call "personality" – that it’s hard to see much in her to interest anybody. Not that she’s utterly without attractions. The costumes show that she has a remarkably strong and straight clavicle, if that’s the sort of thing that does it for you.

If not, you might not find the romance all that convincing. Unless you're the kind of person who's automatically sold on the premise that the innocent, stalwart young woman necessarily deserves the love of the alpha male. Mind you, some sparks do fly when Jane decides to really give the big man a piece of her mind. To my ears, though, her character’s trying too hard to sound the way she thinks an intelligent 19th century heroine should sound. In a somewhat less formulaic way, Michael Fassbender’s brooding, abrupt Mr. Rochester offers some interest and complexity. You can see quite a struggle going on behind his broad brow. That helps you to imagine how a guy entangled in a mess like his would be attracted to a person like Jane. Except that you don’t actually see it happening. What you’ve got here, then, is the idea of a great love story rather than the feel of it.

CC: A good-looking, noble romance without much passion.

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