Dilettante's Diary

Mar 22/12

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, they 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: The Marriage Plot (Novel); A Trick of the Light (Mystery); Bad Luck and Trouble (Thriller); Out The Window (Play); Khovanshchina (Opera); Hugo (Movie); Don GIovanni (Opera);  Drawing 2012 (Art)

The Marriage Plot (Novel) by Jeffrey Eugenides, 2011

You have to pay attention when Jeffrey Eugenides publishes a novel. He hasn’t published many (just three, as far as I know) but he’s one of those American writers who were touted as promising up-and-comers about fifteen years ago. Some of the others were Rick Moody, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen and the late David Foster Wallace. Any novel that they publish, then, is something of an event. However, I didn’t read Mr. Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides (1993) and my reading of Middlesex (2002) occurred before the inception of Dilettante’s Diary. To retrieve my memory of it, then, would require delving deeper into the recesses of my brain than we want to go.

And so to The Marriage Plot. It revolves around three people who were students at Brown University in the early 1980s (where and when, not surprisingly, Mr. Eugenides did his undergraduate studies). There’s Madeleine, who’s majoring in English lit; Leonard, a moody, studly guy who’s studying genetics and whom Madeleine loves; and Mitchell, who wants to be Madeleine’s lover but whom she keeps at a platonic distance as her pal. The book’s title relates to the fact that Madeleine’s writing a thesis on the changing role of marriage as the culminating point of novels.

To say any more about the plot of this novel would be to reveal more than we like to here at Dilettante’s Diary. So let’s talk about the writing. While Mr. Eugenides’ observations are sensitive and acute, his judgements intelligent and apt, there’s an over-stuffed quality to the novel. A lot of recent American novels strike me that way. It makes me wonder if word processors are to blame. Would we be better off if writers had to pound away at a typewriter through the full length of every revision of their novels? Then they might be less inclined to indulge in passages that don’t contribute much to the forward movement of the novel. In The Marriage Plot, for instance, we get a page or so about a woman who’s a member of a therapy group that one of our main characters attends. Why this description of the woman? It doesn’t add anything. It seems like a passage that the author wanted to include just because he enjoyed talking about her.

A related problem, as I see it, is the accretion of detail. This is particularly noticeable in a case where Mr. Eugenides is trying to give the sense of a grubby, insalubrious setting. When a character’s entering a room where a party’s going on, for instance, we get – instead of a few salient details – such laboured description that it sounds like the author is looking down his nose. (I’ve noticed this often in the crime novels of Ruth Rendell.) One aspect of this obsessive detailing takes the form of lists. Ten lines are devoted to the various kinds of taxi drivers Mitchell encounters on a summer job. His credit card purchases are laid out in nine lines. Things a character hates are listed in eight lines. All the spots visited in a tour of India are named in a twelve-line summary. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with these lists, these detailed descriptions, in themselves. But it seems to me that you don’t get them in the really best writing, the kind that moves forward with a compelling quality.

When a novel doesn’t do that, the lulls may leave you looking a little too closely at the writing. In which case, flaws might start becoming more noticeable than they would otherwise. Here are some sentences that struck me as rather infelicitous:  "The incessant quaking of his limbs added to the impression of extreme terror on his face." "The speed with which he left the railways office and went about buying provisions for his trip was like that of someone making a getaway." "The amount of sensations bombarding Mitchell as he reached the corner...would have made Mitchell dizzy even if he were completely straight in the middle of the day." You might even start playing the spot-the-unnecessary-word game on some sentences. For instance: "Leonard had never been to Europe before," and "The speed with which she plucked this assurance from the air had the added benefit of making her believe what she was saying." And you might notice that something seems to have gone wonky with the syntax of a sentence, as in: "She’d put new sheets on the bed and had hung curtains in the windows and a pink shower curtain." In a book that’s generally high-toned and well-written, you might be disappointed in the occasional banality: "...and after a while the experience of kissing Mitchell that night began to seem as though it had taken place in an alternate reality, dreamlike and ephemeral." Also, you might come up against the old problem of an author’s telling you about somebody’s feelings rather than re-creating them: "During the eighteen hours between the phone call and Phyllida’s entering her room, Madeleine went through a range of emotions."

A further problem with Mr. Eugenides’ writing style is his fondness for sentences beginning with noun clauses introduced by the word ‘That’. For example: "That the First Arrondissement might rub up against the Thirteenth....would have been inconceivable to him." And this: "That Leonard couldn’t say this to Madeleine without making her angry suggested the depth of the social chasm between them." Not that these formulations are faulty per se, it’s just that they lack a sense of intimate, personal narration. The faintly academic ring to their rather formal structure spoils the sense of an author’s speaking to you in an engaging way.

None of these flaws are grievous literary sins. But they strike me as the kind of imperfections that, say, William Shawn would have weeded out of any text in his days at the helm of The New Yorker. Maybe my only reason for flagging them is to express a certain sadness that a leading US writer today doesn’t care enough to craft finer prose.

As for the books’ content, rather than the style, there’s no question that Mr. Eugenides has an interesting take on his times and its mores. With reference to Leonard’s research, he gives rather more specific detail about the science of genetics than I’m prepared to try to follow. But maybe this lump of indigestible science is Mr. Eugenides’ way of responding to the common complaint that we don’t hear much about people’s working lives in novels. However, some aspects of particular eras and the human types who inhabit them don’t have a particularly authentic feel. A young woman that Mitchell meets early on sounds too much like a clich of a militant feminist. A student protest has a warmed-over feeling. An encounter Mitchell has with a born-again Christian runs too true to form to be convincing.

Problems with more central characters crop up too. Towards the end of the book, the dialogue between a man and woman who are long-standing partners makes them seem like two people who aren’t very familiar with each other. Admittedly, Mr. Eugenides is dealing here with one character whose profound emotional problems get in the way of communication, so I’m not sure that any author could make that character sound right. Sometimes you get the impression that the parents of the students are all alike: the mothers interfering, the fathers distant. But one of the mothers does eventually emerge as a distinctive character. No question, though, that Mr. Eugenides views sisters as troublesome and hostile. Madeleine’s two roommates, Abby and Olivia, seem virtually indistinguishable and it’s not clear to me why they turn against Madeleine in such a spiteful way. One character – a pal of Mitchell’s – turns out to be irrelevant. Moreover, a sexual surprise that he dishes up turns out not to be much of a surprise. Mr. Eugenides does his best to make us believe that a mother could leave her husband and newborn baby, sending her breast milk back by courier, but that scenario didn’t work for me.

As for the religious search that Mitchell undertakes, given that this is an area in which I have some expertise, I may not be a good judge of what’s plausible for a character who’s coming to the subject for the first time. It does seem to me, though, that the treatment of some of the religious lore is a bit jejune. Surely it's not much of an insight when a character points out that, although God is beyond our conceptualizing, we fall back on the picture of the old man with the white beard simply because we humans need an image. Mind you, Mitchell’s stint of volunteering for Mother Teresa’s organization in Calcutta is one of the best sections of the book but we’ve already had it as a piece of New Yorker short fiction, "Asleep in the Lord." (You can see my comments on that on DD page dated Aug 11/11.)

None of this is to say, however, that the book doesn’t offer plenty of rewards. Mr. Eugenides’ way of re-playing various scenes from different points of view can be very effective. A final scene between Leonard and Mitchell is astonishing, original and insightful. Some very striking aperus scattered throughout the book would include the following:

And how much of his desire to marry Madeleine came from really and truly liking her as a person, and how much from the wish to possess her and, in so doing, gratify his ego?

For the next three years, Leonard treated his manic depression like a concentration requirement in something he wasn’t much interested in, doing the bare minimum to pass.

And this about a character’s feelings regarding his sessions with a psychiatrist:

Often he had the impression that the person answering questions from the scratchy armchair was a dummy he was controlling, that this had been true throughout his life, and that his life had become so involved with operating the dummy that he, the ventriloquist, had ceased to have a personality, becoming just an arm stuffed up the puppet’s back.

If, at times, the book seems to be verging into soap opera territory – Madeleine obsessing about her relationship with Leonard while Mitchell hovers in the background – you have to remind yourself that not many soap operas would have a heroine comparing her own experience of romantic love with her reading of book by Roland Barthes that sets out to deconstruct the concept. Maybe my problem with the The Marriage Plot has something to do with the fact that it seems utterly devoid of humour. That absence tends to lend a certain ponderous, self-important quality to the author’s musings. Although they’re diffuse and prolix at times – the novel might have been improved by a cut of 50 to 100 pages – the ending does give you a sense that your time has been well spent. Mr. Eugenides takes you, ultimately, to a place that you couldn’t foresee or imagine but one that has a definite feeling of truth about people and the way they live.

 

A Trick of the Light (Mystery) by Louise Penny, 2011

You could say it’s about time that I caught up with widely-acclaimed author Louise Penny. Her name often comes up on CBC radio and in other places where Canadian writers are promoted. This book, my first encounter with her, was hailed by The New York Times as one of the best crime novels of 2011.

Like all of Ms. Penny’s books (apparently), it takes place in the fictional village of Three Pines, a place near Montreal that’s so small that it doesn’t appear on any maps. Everybody there knows Ms. Penny’s detective, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. Seems that a lot of murders take place thereabouts. This time, a woman is found dead after a party at the home of an artist who’s celebrating her first major solo show in an important Montreal art gallery. The deceased annoyed pretty well all the artists and art dealers in French Canada.

Many of them were at the party. Lots of suspects, then. And lots of booze. Which brings us to Alcoholics Anonymous. While I found Ms. Penny’s grasp of the procedures of the organization a bit skewed ("Presidents" of the meetings???), she does convey the philosophy and the psychology of recovery in AA very well. And one of the characters, a recovering alcoholic and would-be artist, comes across as a genuine, life-like character.

In most other respects, though, the book doesn’t appeal to me much. For one thing, the depiction of the Montreal art world doesn’t ring very true. Ms. Penny includes a few nice satirical notes on that scene, but her emphasis on the rampant neuroses and the virulent competitiveness among artists seems much exaggerated. And, even as a mystery, the book disappoints in the most basic way: there’s no special surprise about the eventual discovery of the murderer. It could have been this person; it could have been that person. Juggle the facts this way or that, go back in time to provide this or that complication with regard to motive, and you’ve got your murderer. Early on, I spotted a suspicious statement by the person who turned out to be the killer. I don’t know whether that speaks to my perspicacity or to a slip-up on the part of the author.

Sometimes, admittedly, a mystery can be entertaining even if the ultimate solution to the crime isn’t particularly dazzling. For instance, the characters might be enjoyable. As for Inspector Gamache, I find him too much the female fantasy of the ideal male: frequent mention of his deep eyes, how they express such compassion and insight. He’s always right, judicious, and tactful; whereas his brash right-hand-man is always wrong. As if it’s supposed to count in Gamache’s favour, we’re told that he doesn’t treat his subordinates in the police force like kids. But what chief inspector would? On a hot day, everybody else is in shirt sleeves but Ms. Penny informs us that it would take worse heat to make Gamache remove his jacket. I’m like: get a life, guy! Mind you, he does get off a couple of nice jokes when he makes flirty remarks to a gay man, as if he, Gamache, were gay, when everybody knows he’s not.

Finding myself somewhat puzzled buy the book’s tremendous popularity, I could only conclude that it appeals to Ms. Penny’s legion fans who love her characters and the Three Pines setting. The extensive mulling over of events that went down in past books isn’t of much interest to a new reader of the series. Maybe what also pleases Ms. Penny’s fans is the quotient of high-brow matter that might be considered somewhat above the level of the typical whodunnit. Such as knowing comments on the various ways that art works on the psyche. And weighty existential questions about whether people can change or whether they’re stuck with their basic orientation to good or bad. One of the minor characters seems to be having a crisis of faith or lack of faith (if I cared enough I could tell you which). If you find such discussion engaging, go ahead and congratulate yourself on the sophistication of your reading tastes, but what, then, do you make of the hokey device of a terrific thunderstorm at the climax of the book?

I suspect that the writing style also must be an acquired taste for Ms. Penny’s fans. She specializes in paragraphs of one sentence, even of one line. It’s meant to look emphatic, matter-of-fact. But maybe it’s just lazy. Could it be that, instead of taking the time to write paragraphs that knit the details of a story together in a form that makes for good prose, the writer simply slams down thoughts one after another?

At random.

As they come.

Pretentious.

You know what I mean.

 

Bad Luck and Trouble (Thriller) by Lee Child, 2007

It’s always a pleasure to find an un-read Lee Child on the shelves. In this one, Jack Reacher, probably our favourite thriller hero of all time, finds himself back in touch with some members of the unit he commanded when he was in the Military Police. He’s received a coded message indicating that one of the former team members is in trouble. The rest of them – at least, the four who can be reached – come together to solve their mate’s problem. So it’s a bit like old times when these "special investigators" undertake to sort things out in the unique and efficient way they were famous for.

For me, though, this proved to be a bit of a downer in terms of a Jack Reacher escapade. I think that’s mainly because of the team involvement. Let’s face it, what’s so special about Reacher is that he’s a loner. He’s the taciturn stranger who arrives in town and settles trouble in his own way. When you see him operating with a team, it takes away some of his charm. Besides, the presence of the team shows you that Lee Child’s specialty isn’t the creation of characters, other than Reacher. When the team members are huddled in discussion, for instance, it’s often difficult to tell which of them is speaking at any point. (Not that it matters much....but still.) And the settings aren’t the ones that show Reacher at his best. Most of this book takes place in the glitzy, crowded environs of LA and Vegas. For me, Reacher’s spirit comes through better when he’s stranded in godforsaken, isolated places. Also, there’s so much detail about driving on the freeways of LA and explanations of the traffic congestion, that you can’t help having some slight stirrings of suspicion that it amounts to filler – which leads to questions about whether Mr. Child had enough good ideas for this book.

But he does come through in the end. In Reacher’s inimitable fashion, he pulls of some stunning feats of derring-do at the climax of the book. So you put it down with the hope that he will return to his true form in future books. And, having already read some of them, you can enjoy the certain knowledge that he has. (See reviews of other Reacher books on DD pages dated "Summer Mysteries 07," "Myriad Mysteries 2009," Mar 17/10, April 17/10, Dec 21/10, June 20/11.)

 

Out The Window (Play) written and directed by Liza Balkan; starring Julie Tepperman, David Ferry, R.H. Thompson, Brett Donahue, Zahir Gilani, Matt Murray, Jason Siks; The Theatre Centre, Toronto; March 17-20 & 25, 7 pm.

There’s a theory that the best theatre should shake up your ideas about social issues. You can’t get any better an example of that than Out The Window, written and directed by Liza Balkan. It’s about the follow-up to Ms. Balkan’s experience, in 2000, of looking out her apartment window and witnessing an altercation between some cops and Otto Vass, a mentally disturbed man who’d been involved in some sort of fracas in a convenience store. After considerable manhandling by the cops, Mr. Vass ended up dead. To Ms. Balkan, it looked like he had been mercilessly beaten to death. So she stepped forward as a witness. That pulled the well-known Toronto actor and director into court proceedings that dragged on for years.

Almost all of this theatre piece – I’d call it a presentation more than a play – is based on documentary evidence from transcripts of the proceedings. In fact, the actors read most of their lines from the texts. That helps to give a chilling sense of reality to the performance. The first part of the piece delivers evidence from the trial in which the cops were acquitted. Then comes an oddly convivial scene where Ms. Balkan meets the two lawyers who opposed each other on the case and, over a relaxed lunch, they swap thoughts about the trial and entertain each other with legal lore. The final scene presents highlights from the jury inquest into Mr. Vass’ death. The inquest concluded that, because of Mr. Vass’ agitated state and because of various ailments he suffered from – which may have been exacerbated by his treatment at the hands of the cops – the cause of his death was "multi-factorial", i.e. "undetermined."

But neither that verdict nor the acquittal in the earlier trial spoke to the main point of the evening. Maybe some people took home a heightened sense of injustice regarding police brutality. For me, the piece is about deeper, more all-pervasive things. As when the gruelling cross-examination showed how Ms. Balkan could begin to doubt her own memory, to question the meanings of what she had said in earlier testimony. A Kafkaesque quality entered in as a woman stood confronted by accusers who tried to shake her assurance about what she saw. You could see how a person could begin to be unsure of herself even though she was sure about what she knew.

Other important themes cropped up. Like the nature of truth. On that point, one character made the comment that no witness is ever neutral. And then there’s the huge question of the legendary blue code of silence, an un-written law among cops that means none of them will ever report wrong-doing by another. Is there such a code? One cop offered up a line something like: "If there were any such code of silence, I wouldn’t say anything about it." (Not an exact quote; that’s the way I remember it.)

In the role of the witness, Julie Tepperman captures very well, the feistiness and courage, not without a certain vulnerability, in the character of Ms. Balkan (who directed me in a Fringe play of mine a few years ago). David Ferry, as the cops’ lawyer, and R.H. Thompson as the lawyer opposing him, make an excellent contrast to each other: the latter, intense, angry, frustrated and meticulous; the former laid back and smug to the point that he indulges in little witticisms. Perhaps the most surprising work comes from the actors playing the cops. You find that you really want to believe these guys, especially the handsome, stern, very proper Brett Donahue (no relation to me, as far as I know) who can give Shakespearean dignity to this retort in cross-examination: "Perhaps that’s why you are a lawyer, sir, and I am a police officer." His partner, played by Jason Siks, with his references to his training as a social worker and his compassion for mentally handicapped people, and his frequent mentioning of the fact that he asked God for help during the difficult encounter with Mr. Vass, makes you feel that this cop really could be the nice guy that he wants you to believe he is.

The contrast between the cops' version of events and what Ms. Balkan saw makes me think of a theatrical reference that might seem wildly out of context but I believe it applies here. Neil Simon once said that his method of constructing drama was to take two opposing points of view and to defend each of them as vigorously as possible. That’s exactly what this work does. Another showbiz precedent that would seem even more inappropriate would be Dame Edna. Where else have you seen a show where members of the audience are invited to come onstage and eat a meal – as the great dame has famously done to some couples in her shows? In Out The Window, some six members of the audience are invited to come onstage and share in the luncheon that Ms. Balkan has with the two lawyers. Is it just a gimmick, a novelty? I don’t think so. It makes us audience members feel complicit, somehow. In Dame Edna’s shows, the emphasis is on the difference between ourselves and the couple onstage: they’re being made fun of and we’re safely hiding in the darkness. In this case, though, we feel that the people onstage represent us. They make us feel personally implicated in this difficult matter.

The waiters serving the meal were the actors who’d played the cops. But now they were in typical server apparel of white shirts and black ties. At some point, though, you noticed that they were still wearing their cop trousers with the red stripe down the legs. That caused a certain frisson, the ramifications of which were vague but troubling. Other very effective theatrical touches included music that often struck an ominous mood and overhead projection of eloquent text and videos. As for other technology, I wasn’t so sure about the use of the microphones. It seemed as though there might be some significance to when the actors used microphones and when they didn’t but the arrangement could just as well have been arbitrary, for all I could tell. Some inventive staging helped to relieve the risk of stasis inherent in the fact that the actors were working with transcripts, but I’m not sure that the problem was fully solved, especially near the end of the two-hour piece, when I was finding it harder to pay attention. But maybe my brain was flagging from so much contention.

One of the most original and striking moments came at the very end of the piece when Ms. Balkan stepped forward and took over the last few lines from the actor who had been playing her character. I can’t recall ever seeing something like that in the theatre. Talk about blurring the line between illusion and reality!

Note: A review of an earlier version of this work appears on DD page dated Feb 8/09

 

Khovanshchina (Opera) by Modest Mussorgsky; conducted by Karill Petrenko; performed by various singers with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus;  CBC Radio's "Saturday Afternoon at the Opera", March 17, 2012.

Some readers of this website might think we drool over anything the Met serves up. Here's testimony to the contrary. I didn't catch all of the broadcast but, from what I heard of Modest Mussorsky's Khovanshchina, I'd say that the orchestral music was lovely -- except he didn't write much of it. Mostly, it was provided by other composers after his death. And the singing that he did write the music for? Apart from some beautiful stuff for the chorus, the writing for the solos seemed intended to produce nothing but wobbly-voiced shouting, especially from the testosterone-soaked baritones and bases.

 

Hugo (Movie) written by John Logan; based on the book by Brian Selznick; directed by Martin Scorsese; starring Asa Butterfield, Chlo Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen, Emily Mortimer, Ray WInstone, Helen McCrory, Jude Law.

A person should try to appreciate popular culture. Isn’t that one of the reasons we go to the movies – to get a handle on what people are enjoying, to experience for ourselves what everybody’s talking about? And just because a movie has been nominated for an Academy Award for best movie, that doesn’t necessarily mean it doesn’t deserve to have us sit through it.

If only doing so wasn’t so damned hard. Enduring this two-hour opus made me feel like a goose trapped in a pen and having pure treacle poured down my throat. All that sugary, sentimental photography: scenes of Paris dusted with snow, streets silvered by moonlight. Paris as seen by Norman Rockwell in his Hallmark mode. The 3D technology, rather than heightening the reality (which I thought 3D was meant to do) just emphasized the artificiality of it all. It made me feel like I was a kid again, peering at fairy tale scenes through my ViewMaster. And much as I love Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White, paying the price for 3D movie admission and finding myself back in their world didn't thrill me.

So I spent much of this movie with my eyes closed. With the result that I’ve never studied the score of a movie so closely. That Howard Shore (a Canadian composer) sure is determined to program your emotional responses with relentless insistency. Hardly twenty seconds go by without some obtrusive musical clue as to what you’re supposed to be feeling. In case you ever happen to forget the setting, bits of accordion music always bring you back to good old Paree. In fact, you could get the gist of the movie just by listening to the music, without paying much attention to what was happening on screen.

That, as it appeared from my occasional glimpses, had something to do with a little boy (Asa Butterfield) who, because of a Dickensian turn of events, ends up with the job of minding the clocks in a train station. (Juding by the fashions, this appears to be taking place shortly after the First World War.) It seems to be one extremely complicated and cavernous station; how minding a few clocks could involve so many behind-the-scenes catwalks and ladders, tunnels and trapdoors, is beyond me. But maybe it’s not supposed to be realistic. Rather, I think it may be all about the magic of story-telling. You’re supposed to be caught up in the charming adventures of this plucky lad and his winsome gal pal (Chlo Grace Moretz).

If you waste time wondering why these Parisian kiddies speak in beautifully-clipped, upper-class Brit accents, you clearly aren’t getting into the spirit of the thing. Same for the vaguely cockney sound of the station cop who is always pestering the kids. You might notice, though, that he does have one of the few good lines in the movie. When the little girl spouts Christina Rosetti’s poetry at him, the guard says that, yes, he does appreciate poetry, "but not in the station." (The most amusing thing about the movie is the fact that this prissy guy turns out to be Sacha Baren Cohen of Borat infamy.)

When the kids manage to escape his snooty invigilation, they run up against the ornery opposition of an old guy (Ben Kingsley) who runs a toy shop in the station. His main contribution to the movie is to offer a remarkable demonstration over-acting while using just two faces: a curmudgeonly scowl for most of the movie, and then a benevolent, twinkle-eyed smile. The reason we have to take an interest in this character is that he bears some secret sadness having something to do with the First World War. Like a lot of people, he found that event a bit of a bummer. For reasons we can't go into here, at risk of revealing too much, the kids' encounter with him leads us back to the early days of movie-making. Thus, we end up at a gala celebration of primitive films -- all of which look like those dorky animated sequences from Monty Python.

At which point, it finally comes clear that what Hugo is all about is Martin Scorsese’s craving to see himself onstage at the Academy Awards, basking in the adulation of his colleagues who have finally given him the Oscar for best movie in recognition of his genius in the art form he loves so much. Surely he deserved that acclaim, having turned his back on violence and crime, and having cravenly sought our approval with this heart-warming tale. Too bad the real world doesn't always live up to the expectations of even the most fervent worker in the dream factory.

Capsule Comment: Take insulin.

 

Don Giovanni (Opera) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; conducted by Sir Andrew Davis; Metropolitan Opera; CBC Radio Two’s "Saturday Afternoon at the Opera"; March 10

Since I’d already seen this production in the HD Live broadcast (the review is on DD page dated Nov 7/11), why put everything on hold to catch it this time on radio? Mainly because this performance was starring, in the role of the Don, Gerald Finley, probably my favourite baritone. (Which is not to say that the fact that he’s Canadian had nothing to do with it.) The part of Leporello was supposed to be taken by John Reylea. Because he was indisposed, Bryn Terfel stepped in. I gather he just happened to be in town for some upcoming Wagner and he knows Leporello well. In the intermission interview, though, he said that he’d thought he’d already sung his last Leporello. The interviewer mentioned the fact that Mr. Terfel had also sung the Don many times. Mr. Terfel responded vehemently that he’d sung the role "very badly!" His voice, he said, couldn’t cope with the challenges Mozart throws at it in the second act. It’s rare to hear star singers make such candid and unbridled remarks about themselves and their talent in these intermission interviews. The little chat with Mr. Terfel was one of the more refreshing ones heard in recent years.

It would have been interesting to see the inter-play between him and Mr. Finley onstage. As far as I know, it’s rare to have two such big stars playing these roles in the same production. My impression is that, in most productions, one or the other of them is the bigger star. There’s no question, though, that, in this case, the two stars are of equal magnitude. Much as I love Mr. Finley’s singing, however, it was hard to get a good sense of it in this role. The Don sings a lot and, as noted by Mr. Terfel, much of the assignment is very challenging. But much of it’s in recitative. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for the voice to stand out in big arias. Another problem is that, when you don’t know the libretto really well, it can be hard to tell who’s singing in the recitative, given that both the Don and Leporello are baritones (or bass-baritones, as the case may be). But Mr. Terfel certainly did stand out at times, especially in his arias. As you might expect, he brought tremendously expressive qualities to his singing. This was a Leporello who was scathing, wrathful, almost denunciatory at times. A touch Wagnerian, even.

The only cast member who had been in the HD Live version I’d seen was Marina Rebeka, as Donna Anna. My high praise of her, with the same slight qualification, still stands. As Elvira, though, Ellie Dehn, beautiful as her voice may be, did not seem up to the pyrotechnics Mozart has assigned to the role. I was somewhat stumped by Isabel Leonard in the role of Zerlina. Although she sings very beautifully, her voice is rather ripe for the part; that detracts from the youthful, perky quality you expect in Zerlina. Maybe Ms. Leonard put that across in her acting which couldn’t, of course, come across on the radio.

The role of Don Ottavio is one of the great pinnacles of tenor singing, one that not many men can handle. I was wondering whether Mathew Polenzani would be up to it. He was; he sang it well (certainly better than your or I could). But there was a slightly pushed, throaty quality to his singing, most noticeably in "Dalla sua pace." The voice did not float over the music the way it should, ideally – except in the passage that was sung pianissimo, but he sang it so extremely softly that you wondered whether it could be heard beyond the front rows. (In an intermission item on legato singing, however, Mr. Polenzani’s voice did float beautifully in an excerpt from a recording.) His stentorian quality was more appropriate in "Il mio tesoro" – after all, the character’s promising to wreck vengeance – but, even here, there was a lack of delicacy, of sweetness, that would have made the fury all the more pointed.

 

Drawing 2012 (Art) John B. Aird Gallery, Toronto; until March 2nd

As I wasn’t able to see this show until closing day, this review will have to serve as a sample of what you might have seen. If you expected this show, as usual, to challenge your idea of what constitutes drawing, you wouldn’t have been disappointed. Take Neil Harrison’s piece on canvas: broad strips of what looked like various tones of sandy, beige paint. If you looked closely, though, you found that these infinitely subtle variations in tone were achieved by graphite. So I guess that made it a drawing. Then what about the piece by Lois Schklar? It consisted of some wire netting attached to the wall. I suppose you could say that it was an image. Would this, then, have been an example of drawing with wire as the medium?

In a more traditional vein, at least in terms of technique, if not subject matter, there were the two works by Erin Finley, who won one of the show’s first prizes. (Apparently two "Firsts" and one "Second" were awarded this year.) Done in the fine, detailed manner of exquisite illustration, these ink and watercolour works, with touches of gold leaf, showed a young woman, wearing what I think is called a bustier, in rather contorted positions: in one case, doing a sort of legs-over-head summersault and in the other, crouched between two bicycle wheels.

There’s no question that Amanda Burk’s second-prize-winner fit into the time-honoured tradition of drawing, even if its motif was slightly surreal: a panel about fifteen feet long showing two images, head-to-head, of the same pregnant, nude, woman, recumbent. Among some of the other works featuring very skilled drawing there was an excellent little portrait in charcoal of a strong woman’s face by Martha de la Fuente. The two works by Toni Hamel achieved a certain distinctiveness by employing bits of red thread to strategic effect in photograpically perfect drawings of kids. Peter Large’s birds’ nest in graphite and coloured pencil represented drawing at its technical perfection. A work entirely in coloured pencil, David Woodward’s portrait of an elderly lady with bad teeth conveyed a certain contentment and serenity in the face of physical decline. One of the simplest graphite drawings in the show, Irene Vaisnoras’ work, apparently based on old family photos, created a very evocative effect with a minimum of detail; one of the central figures, in fact, had no facial features.

The other first-prize went to Julia Vandepolder for her large painting of a table strewn with books against a window. It made a rather pleasing still life of clutter but even more appealing, to my eye, was the same artist’s painting of a somewhat dis-jointed interior that looked something like a kitchen or a butcher shop: a jumbled sense of a table in the centre, tiles on the wall, possibly a stairway leading to a cellar on one side. Whether you could make sense of it or not, it exerted a certain fascination.

A couple of works that had somewhat the same effect were Nomi Drory’s two large paintings. One showed something that looked like a large commercial building – lots of glass and metal – all of it in rather unusual shades of pink. The other painting, in a somewhat unfocused, blurred way, gave the interior what appeared to be a garage or machine shop on one side and, on the other side, a greenish panel bearing some sort of lever or a handle to a piece of machinery. Both of these works suggested different ways of looking at commonplace things. As did the semi-abstract by Pegi Kosa. In cool shades of black, white and grey, with just a hint of pale green, it showed something like a downtown scene: possibly a patio under an awning, surrounded by architectural and mechanical elements. The whole made a very pleasing, geometrically-based composition.

In a more realistic approach to city life there were Nancy Oakes’ quick drawings of downtown scenes. (Her work is discussed in more detail in my review of The Artist Project 2012). A much more desolate feeling about communal living came through in Phyllis Gordon’s two panels in soft pastels, mostly black and white, featuring bleak glimpses of what looked like some small town, with its water towers, low-rise buildings and empty road.

For a nightmarish effect, there was Arash Aakhgari’s work consisting of many tiny black strokes, like a finger print, until you realized it was a face with a pair of owlish eyes staring frantically at you. Lillian B. Lampert’s "Relations," a gathering of hideous misfits around a table, made you glad you hadn’t been invited to that party. There was also an ominous look to Ivo Arnaudov’s life-sized drawing of what appeared to be a bionic nude man created from bits and pieces of things like tubing and rods.

More reassuring messages about humanity came through in other works, such as the unusual take on a group of children in Kelly O’Neill’s work in charcoal and pastel on mylar: just the heads and shoulders of toddlers tumbling in some sort of game. The emphasis on shape, rather than facial features, conveyed an appreciation of childhood energy and fun without the sentimentality. In the large grouping of several people by Lulu Ladron de Guevara, it wasn’t the drawing technique as such that interested me so much as the fact that there seemed to be some strange dynamic binding these people together. I had to keep coming back to them, wondering about the communication that seemed to be going on among them. And I couldn’t resist the droll humour in Monika Raciborski’s small work showing a nice-looking guy, with a bland expression on his face, as he stands back, with one hand on his hip and a paint brush in the other hand, appearing to admire the red dots that he has presumably painted on the work in which he appears.

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