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Dec 16/12

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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new 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: Aida (Opera) Terminus (Play); The Collective (Art); Un Ballo In Maschera (Opera); Holy Motors (Movie); The Arsonists (Play)
Aida (Opera) by Giuseppe Verdi; conducted by Fabio Luisi; starring Liudmyla Monastryska, Roberto Alagna, Olga Borodina, George Gagnidze; with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; CBC Radio Two "Saturday Afternoon at the Opera"; December 15th

To see yet another production of Aida does not rank very high on my list of must-do projects during my remaining time on this earth. But I was eager to catch this one -- on radio -- for the sake of hearing the Ukranian soprano Liudmyla Monastryska who, in the title role, is making her met debut. I was able to hear all but the second act and was very impressed. It surprised me that Ms. Monastryska didn't get a bigger ovation after her first aria, "Ritorna Vincitor." Could it be that the guys in the upper balconies, the ones who do all the yelling, didn't quite know what to make of her, given that she's relatively unknown on the New York scene? 

To my ears, her very beautiful voice was perfectly produced -- seamless from top to bottom, and very rich in the lower register, a trait that's especially suited to the music for this role. Her singing is pure and unwavering, with a high pianissimo that's exquisite. Sometimes, there's a bit of scooping up to the high notes, but not always.

Roberto Alagna soldiered on valiantly in the tenor role of Radames. At the age of forty-nine, he can still sing it but there isn't much beauty left in his voice. Occasionally he hits a sweet note but, for the most part, his singing is harsh and throaty now. It's a pity to have to say this. During the intermission interview, he sounded like a modest, unassuming man -- not at all like the guy in that infamous U Tube video who made a rude gesture to an audience that booed his performance in this role a few years ago.



Terminus (Play) by Mark O’Rowe; directed by Mitchell Cushman; starring Maev Beaty, Ava Jane Markus, Adam Kenneth Wilson; an Outside the March Production; presented by David Mirvish; Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto; until December 16th 
 
The onslaught of advertising from the Mirvish corporation implies that this event is a rare experience, unlike anything we’ve ever seen on stage. So I trekked down to the Royal Alexandra in the hopes of having my mind opened to new theatrical possibilities.

What I found there was a show performed by three actors, two women and a man, on a bare stage. They tell stories about contemporary life in Dublin. Although the material consists of interrupted monologues, they overlap and intersect; you gradually twig to the ways in which the characters from the different monologues have some connections with each other. The first speaker, a woman (Maev Beaty), tells about her work for a suicide prevention phone line. One night, she realizes that one of the callers is a girl she taught in high school. That discovery leads the woman to more horrendous ones. A younger woman (Ava Jane Markus), a lonely stay-at-home type, tells about the night she accepts an invitation to go drinking with a best friend and the friend’s husband. An attractive man appears at their table and that has devastating consequences. The third actor (Adam Kenneth Wilson), a man who is shy, and especially timid around women, shows in a creepy way how his personal hang-ups gradually develop into horrifying psychopathy.

No mistake about it, this play – which premiered at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 2007 – is a trip to the dark side of the city. You have to wonder what James Joyce would think if he could hear what these Dubliners are up to. There are also echoes of a much earlier literary precedent: Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. That’s not just because of the racy content of the stories, but even more so because of the plethora of rhymes tripping over each other in the text. It’s to the actors’ credit, though, that the rhymes don’t hit you too obviously. It takes you quite a while – at least it did in my case – to notice them. 

As for whether or not the material is poetry, it’s hard to say. I couldn’t catch any noticeable rhythm but I did become aware, early on, of a slightly artificial structure to the language. For instance, there were a lot of formulations like: “My friend having assurred me that it was safe, I proceeded to.....” (That’s not a quote from the play, just an attempt to give an idea of the style.) You were aware that you were hearing, not the ordinary flow of speech, but something that had been written. Maybe that’s why another literary model that came to mind was the dramatic monologue, most notably exemplified for many English students by Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” In the way that that poem does, this material catches you up in a spoken stories full of drama.

All three actors deliver their monologues with terrific verve and energy. I can’t help singling out Maev Beaty, though, as the one who had the most powerful effect on me. That’s partly because, as the woman who works for the volunteer phone line, she so vividly creates the diverse characters in her story, everybody from an embittered alcoholic mother to a vicious lesbian and a slimy bar tender. There are times when this performer holds you in a tight grip and doesn’t let go. She was the only one of the actors – granting the spectacular talents of all of them – who had such a rivetting effect on me. 

But the script didn’t impress me as much as the performances. Yes, the material is shocking, grotesque at times. It shakes you up. You’ll want to squirm. The text may take you where you don’t want to go. But the connections between the stories depend on a lot of random events and coincidences. The more fundamental problem, for me, is that surrealism creeps in. Some of the stories depend on the presence of demons and angels, things like making bargains with the devil. For some people that sort of thing may be fascinating. To me it’s a cop-out. When we’re supposedly talking about the nitty-gritty of life, I don’t want to resort to the supernatural. 

In any case, what is the point of it all? It’s rather like watching a car crash. Yes, you’ve seen some horrifying things. But is there anything that you can take away? There’s a hint of hope in a moment near the end, but the circumstances being described are so confusing that it’s hard to take any definite meaning from them. I’m not saying that every theatre piece needs to have an explicit and uplifting lesson that can be emblazoned over the door. But I think the best theatre is satisfying because you come away feeling that you haven’t seen life presented just as a shambles, that it’s possible to make some sense of it all.

One thing that certainly was unique about this production was the setup in the Royal Alexandra theatre. The audience – about 150 people – was seated on the stage, facing out into the auditorium, while the actors, performing at the front edge of the stage, had their backs to the auditorium (which was shrouded in darkness for most of the show). The reason for this arrangement is that the show would have seemed out of place in the vast, ornate setting of the auditorium itself. There needed to be more intimacy between audience and actors. Any of the smaller, plainer venues in Toronto would have sufficed – even a barren warehouse setting – but I’m guessing that the reason for this choice is that the Mirvish team happened to have this theatre available, so they made the best us of it that they could.

No matter where the piece had been performed, the minimalist design would have worked well. Narrow strips of material were extended horizontally from pillars on both sides of a central opening where the actors performed. According to artful changes in lighting, those strips – something like Venetian blinds – conveyed a surprising range of moods. 

Was this, then, like nothing we’d ever seen before? Was it Ireland’s gift to Canadian theatre? I don’t think so. Granted, there was a certain appeal in hearing about features of Dublin, like the River Liffey. It might be going too far to say that Ireland has an exotic allure, but it does have the interest, for us, of being slightly foreign. The stories might not have had the same interest if the performers had been talking about life around Queen Street West and Union Station. Setting aside such geographical details, could we say the Irish flavour of the material counted for something? After all, the Irish are famous for their ability to hold you with their talk, for their mastery of the arts of communication. Yes, I think it would be fair to say that the way the words reached out and held you – especially as delivered by Maev Beaty – was something special. 



The Collective (Art) The Triangle Gallery, 38 Abell Street, Toronto; until December 18th www.thecollectivegallery.blogspot.com

It’s impossible to follow-up on more than a tiny percentage of the invitations to art shows that arrive here at Dilettante’s Diary. Once in a while, though, there’s something irresistible about an email blurb. In this case, it included a photo of a painting of three roosters by Julia McNeely. Those birds came strutting and crowing off the screen with such attitude that they demanded to be seen in the original.

It turned out, however, that much of the art that appealed to me in this show was city-based. Some of the most delightful pieces in the show are small wooden plaques (about five by five inches) by Rhonda Nolan. In yellows, blacks, whites and greys, they’re very attractive abstracts that mange to suggest the busy-ness and tumult of a city. I’ve often admired Nancy Oakes’ spontaneous, of-the-moment drawings of life in the streets. The works look messy but they’re constructed with a strong underlying sense of composition and they do capture very well the sense of urban bustle. I was pleased as well with Sherrill Girard’s mixed media piece “Living Under the Gardiner.” It’s almost abstract but you do get the artist’s feel for that much-maligned part of our city. Also in the urban mode, woodcut prints by Sharon Helleman are very strong: dramatic black and white compositions of residential streets and trees. And you could say that the droll miniatures by Rob Croxford celebrate metropolitan life with their pop art renderings of cars, buildings and comic-book-type heroes.

In a more bucolic spirit, there’s Daniel Ho’s encaustic “Fantasy Garden” that looks a bit like a child’s wonderland where trees and flowers could almost be candy. Also looking to the natural world, but in a more gentle way, some of the more restrained work in the show is by Susy Martin, whose delicate mixed-media collages pay tribute to birds, while circles and ovals of rice paper adorned with enigmatic daubs of colour bear titles like “Window” and “Flower Fairies.”

The show is apparently intended as an offering of potential holiday gifts. Along with the many other works of fine art for sale are crafts, such as beautifully knitted scarves and touques, as well as wooden bowls, pottery and jewelry. While I admired these objects, I don’t pay enough attention to this kind of work in general to be able to make any meaningful comment on them.

And what of the roosters that beckoned me to the show? Alas, the ones featured on the invitation were not present. There was another painting of roosters in the show but they struck me as flatter, not as full of character, as the ones on the invitation. However, I understand that Julia McNeely is well-known for painting roosters that are very popular with buyers.



Un Ballo In Maschera (Opera) by Giuseppe Verdi; conducted by Fabio Luisi; production by David Alden; design by Paul Steinberg; costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel; choreography by Maxine Braham; starring Marcelo └lverez, Sondra Radvanovsky, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Stephanie Blythe, Kathleen Kim; with the Metropolitan Opera orchestra and chorus; HD Live Transmission, Dec 8/12

It was the design of this production that hooked me. I hadn’t planned to attend, but the preview at last week’s broadcast (La Clemenza di Tito) showed that this Ballo was being done in modern dress. I’ve been finding that these up-dated settings for operas – most notably as witnessed in last year’s broadcast of La Traviata – can be intriguing. 

And this one was. But, first, a few words about the story, just to provide some context for a discussion of the more interesting aspects of the production. The libretto is based on the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden in 1792. In the opera, King Gustavo is in love with Amelia, the wife of his best friend, RenÚ Anckarstr÷m. Meanwhile, conspirators are plotting to bring down the king because of what they see as his tyrannical ways. You can probably guess how these two plots lines might converge in a not-very-happy way. 

The stripped-down style of the production struck me as being most effective in the scene where the king, disguised as a fisherman, goes to consult a fortune teller. It’s more or less a lark, on his part. The poor woman has been sentenced to exile for her nefarious doings, but he wants to find out what she’s like. While visiting her lair, he figures – not a good idea Gustavo! – that he may as well get his fortune told. For this scene you expect the usual spooky cave or woodland grotto, a place dripping with menace and danger. But no, here you got the bare stage with just bare walls, a few wooden tables and chairs. You could concentrate on the essence of what was happening, without being distracted by fantastic scenery. 

That sense of concentration and focus came through especially well in Stephanie Blythe’s acting as Ulrica, the fortune teller. There was nothing over-stated in her performance. You could easily imagine how many contraltos in the role would throw themselves around in the attempt to convince you how dread-full their character was, but Ms. Blythe kept very still, leaving her gorgeous voice to do the work, with the effect that the menace was all the stronger.

Musically, Ballo is something of an odd dish, in that an ominous mood hangs over the proceedings and yet there are passages as light and frivolous as an operetta. Marcelo └lverez’s singing, as Gustavo, was stupendous, although his acting was a bit hammy, particularly in the scenes where he was supposed to be whooping it up. But you couldn’t help loving him when it turned out that he could do a bit of jazzy soft-shoe with great flair. (I’m wondering how many starring tenors would be willing to take that on.)

In last week’s Clemenza, soprano Kate Lindsey was remarkable for presenting such a convincing male in a trouser role. This week, however, Kathleen Kim – with her diminutive stature and the sweet expression on her soft, round face – was not the least bit masculine in the role of Oscar, a sort of page or messenger boy. She said in the intermission interview that director David Alden had wanted it to be somewhat ambiguous as to whether the character was male or female. Ok, fine. But didn’t the goatee kind of settle the matter? What’s more important, though, is that Ms. Kim’s singing, especially her coloratura, was glorious.

When it comes to Verdi heroines, you have to forget about the fact that we no longer have the likes of Leontyne Price or Renata Tebaldi on stage. Sondra Radvanovsky gave us an Amelia that was vocally just fine, if not quite as astounding as some of her predecessors. For the HD Live transmissions, though, it would be better if Ms. Radvanovsky’s singing didn’t come with so many facial contortions.

Although legions of Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s fans disagree with me, his voice has never struck me as one of the greatest baritones. For my taste, there isn’t enough ring or brilliance to it. It’s a velvety, cushioned sound. But it can be very beautiful and seductive, as if often was in his rendering of Anckarstr÷m.

One of the things that I like about these live transmissions is that you sometimes get moments of spontaneity. We have Mr. Hvorostovsky to thank for one of them in this broadcast. During an intermission interview with the two male stars, Debora Voigt  asked Mr. Hvorstovsky how he managed some of the difficult demands of the role. He answered: “Because my voice is so great!” After the laughing and gasping, there wasn’t much for Ms. Voigt to do but shoo the two men off camera. 

As for other non-musical aspects of the production, it was refreshing to see rows of metal desks whisked onstage for the scene where Gustavo is consulting with his officials. It’s not often you get the ambiance of a modern office in an opera. But I wasn’t sure of the point of the painting of the Fall of Icarus hanging over almost every scene. Nor did I get the meaning of every detail of the strange gesticulating and the choreography executed by the chorus. But  it was certainly more interesting than the usual choral falderal. The direction of the piece was particularly striking when the lovers were singing their final farewells to each other while, behind them, figures in black danced in slow motion, like mannequins in an automated tableau. The best costumes came in the fortune-teller scene: the women of the chorus, in their drab coats and hats, clutching their purses, looked like the people in old photos of bread lines during the Great Depression. By way of contrast Mr. └lverez provided a jaunty note to that scene. Being somewhat husky, he looked great in his fisherman’s thick sweater and touque.



Holy Motors (Movie) written and directed by Leos Carax; starring Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue, Elise Lhomeau, Jeanne Dison, Michel Piccoli, Leos Carax

If you approach this movie with very little information about it, it’s going to take you quite a while to figure out what’s going on (if you ever do). My only knowledge of the movie beforehand was that it was French and that it was unusual.

Bien sur! 

We open with a guy waking up in what looks like a motel room. He (I think the actor is the film's writer and director, Leos Carax) opens a secret panel in the wall and finds himself in the basement stairwell of a movie theatre. He climbs up to the balcony overlooking an auditorium that’s crowded with attentive spectators. 

None of which has anything to do with what follows, unless he’s seeing on screen what we and the people in the cinema are seeing.

Which is: 

A prosperous-looking guy emerges from his villa one morning and proceeds down the driveway. His kids shout “bye” to him and wish him a good day at work. His female chauffeur is waiting for him by a stretch limo. Riding along in the limo, as the sights of Paris appear in the window, the toff, whose name is Oscar (Denis Lavant), asks his driver about his first appointment of the day. She tells him to consult the file on the seat beside him. He does. Then we see him brushing a wig of long, grey hair. The limo stops on a bridge somewhere over the Seine and Oscar emerges as an elderly female beggar. After a little panhandling, he climbs back in and the limousine proceeds to a futuristic factory. Now our man emerges from the limo in a latex body suit studded with led lights. He climbs up several levels and enters a dark space where he performs gymnastics and Cirque-de-Soleil manoeuvres. A woman, similarly garbed, enters. Their two bodies engage in some erotic grappling. 

Then it’s back to the limo. We begin to get used to seeing Oscar donning various disguises in the limo, which functions as an elaborate dressing room, complete with makeup supplies and appropriate lighting. At one point, looking like a street tough, Oscar enters some sort of warehouse where he kills somebody (or does he?), then rearranges the corpse’s appearance so that it’s identical to him, the murder. At another point, he transfers to a little car, picks up a sullen teenage daughter from a party, drives her home, then returns to the limo. One of his most bizarre escapades takes place in a cemetery (PŔre Lachaise, I think) where he interrupts a commercial shoot, abducts a sultry model (Eva Mendes), takes her to an underground cavern in the Paris sewer system, strips naked and arranges the two of them in what looks like an obscene parody of various classic PietÓ’s. 

It feels as though we’re trapped in one of those filmmaker’s dreams that doesn’t translate to the screen very well. Or, it could be a lesson on the creative deployment of theatrical makeup, especially with regard to latex facial prosthetics. But some hints of a deeper meaning do eventually come to the surface. Around the mid-way point, a man who appears to be Oscar’s employer asks how his  “work” is going. It would not be my place here, however, to spell out all the implications, even if I could. (At Dilettante’s Diary we like to leave you the opportunity to discover lots for yourself.) 
 
One moment where the possible significance of it all clicks into place is near the end, when Oscar's chauffeur hands him the key to a house and wishes him a good night. Oscar stops on the doorstep of the house for a moment and you can see that he's not sure whether he wants to unlock the door and enter. The themes that are in the air appear to have something to do with: reality vs role-playing; the craving for reality tv these days; the presence of cameras everywhere. And yet, I can't help thinking that similar ideas have been raised more effectively and less obscurely in other movies. Say, The Truman Show, or that Gwyneth Paltrow movie about alternate lives, Sliding Doors.
 
But there’s lots to admire in Holy Motors, even if you don’t love the movie. No denying that it holds your attention. Monsieur Carax is the kind of filmmaker who knows how to construct scenes with just enough touches of suspense and mystery to keep you wondering: what next??? 

Then there are the incidental pleasures. Visually, it’s magnificent, especially the sequence when the two bodies are tangling with each other in the darkness, lit only by the led lights on their latex costumes. We’re treated to spectacular views of places like underground parking garages, abandoned warehouses, derelict department stores – all of them looking much more arty than the way we’d ordinarily think of them. There are even aural grace notes. For instance, every time the limo’s doors open, we notice the different pitch of the repeated “pings” for the driver’s door and Oscar’s door. Who would have thought that the pinging of open car doors could seem so significant? A more grandiose aural treat comes in a scene when accordion players are marching through one of those big, empty Parisian churches, the massed sound of their instruments bouncing off the stony walls. And there are some of the casting surprises that you get only in European movies.Oscar’s chauffeur (Edith Scob) is an older woman, one who was obviously quite a stunner in her prime. Although still very stylish, she’s very much showing her age.

The movie ends with her returning the limo to a garage where a lot of other limos are arriving. When the garage is closed and dark, and all the people have gone, the brake lights of the limos start flashing and the limos start voicing their thoughts about their day in the city. This, then, would be a variation on all those children’s stories where the toys come alive at night. What the vehicles are saying sounds droll. I think it’s supposed to explain the movie’s title but it was lost on me. All the smart remarks that were presumably coming from the cars’ exhaust pipes sounded like a lot of hot air to me.

Capsule comment (instead of a rating): Of interest mainly to sophisticates who pride themselves on appreciating fare that is unusual and weird.



The Arsonists (Play) by Max Frisch; translation by Alistair Beaton; directed by Morris Panych; original music by Justin Rutledge; starring Michael Ball, Dan Chameroy, Fiona Reid, Sheila McCarthy, Shawn Wright, Justin Rutledge, Christine Bougie, Sly Juhas. Canadian Stage, Bluma Appel Theatre; until Dec 9th.

A town is seized by an epidemic of arson. All homeowners are afraid there may be arsonists hiding in their attics. A stranger turns up at the door of Gottlieb and Babette. Before you know it, this stranger has inveigled his way into their home. Guess where he installs himself? When the stranger is joined by a pal who helps him move tanks of gasoline into the attic, Babette and Gottlieb reassure themselves that there’s nothing to worry about. After all, the “guests” couldn’t possibly be arsonists: they don’t have any matches! 

And so proceeds this marvellous sampling of absurd theatre by Swiss playwright Max Frisch, first performed in 1958. The satire scores on more than one level. First, there’s the way that the stranger insinuates himself into the household by manipulating the guilt feelings and the politeness of his hosts. In the responses of Babette and Gottlieb, we can see ourselves backing down and professing the opposite of what we feel when there’s the slightest suspicion that we may be harbouring ignoble feelings towards someone who is actually imposing on us. (Maybe this has special relevance for notoriously polite Canadians?) 

Then, there’s the over-arching theme of the presence of evil in our midst, the way we invite it into our presence in spite of ourselves, the way our rational minds keep trying to convince us that there’s really nothing to fear, in spite of our gut feelings. And there’s always the question of whether this dreaded thing is real. Or is it  a projection of our neuroses? I’m reminded of the saying in the 1950s that many Americans were afraid of Communists hiding under their beds. 

Given such a wonderful theme, the question is: why did this production not really catch fire for me? The only explanation I can think of is that, in spite of the good work by everybody involved, the production lacked certain magic ingredients to provide the necessary combustion.

Not that there was any problem with the look of the show. The off-kilter set, designed by Ken MacDonald, managed to suggest – very effectively – a fussy living room and an attic, while emphasizing the two-dimensional superficiality of the surroundings, in keeping with the quality of the inhabitants. 

The flaw in the production, as I experienced it, may have had something to do with the way some of those inhabitants came across – or didn’t. Michael Ball, in the role of the homeowner, was the incarnation of the stout pooh-bah, the grouchy tycoon. But you might have said he was so comfortable in the part that he was walking through it. There may also have been a matter of voice quality. Lacking edge and volume, Mr. Ball’s voice didn’t reach out and grab you. If it had, I think the production might have felt more urgent, given that his is probably the anchoring role of the piece. 

Like Mr. Ball, some of the other actors often seemed to be rattling off their lines. Perhaps that’s the way the play was directed. Some directors encourage actors to race through their lines in a certain style that’s thought appropriate for comedy. The trouble is that this sort of delivery doesn’t offer much opportunity for nuance or for spontaneous touches of genuine thought or feeling. That could be why lots of good lines went flying by without the audience’s noticing. One such under-appreciated line was the one where a character says something like: “We’re all human, even the middle classes.” (Not an exact quote.)

The other role that was problematic, in my view, was that of the first of the two interlopers. Dan Chameroy didn’t bring anything special to the part (other than a physique that provoked admiring murmurs from the teenage females in the balcony). His acting was perfectly competent but I think there needed to be something more charismatic and intriguing about this character. The part is wonderfully written, with its many surprises, its quirky twists and paradoxes. If you felt, from the moment this guy sets foot on stage, that he’s something extraordinary, one of those can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him people, you might have felt more caught up in the proceedings. Granted, there aren’t a lot of actors around who have that aura but you might think Canadian Stage, with its resources, could have found one. As it was, we got the idea of the character but not the flesh-and-blood reality.

As in the cases of Mr. Ball and Mr. Chameroy, there was no fault to find in any of the other performances. It would have helped, though, if there’d been some sort of electric current between the Chameroy character and his sidekick, as played by Shawn Wright. Both actors were fine, but, for some reason or other, there was no excitement in their interaction. If there had been, the play would have worked better. Although there was nothing new about the role of the kooky maid, Sheila McCarthy served her up in fine style. It could also be said that Fiona Reid’s Babette was just another of Ms. Reid’s dithery comic ladies, and yet the scene in which she tries to oust the intruder was one of the few parts of the play that actually pulled me in. I felt really involved in her struggle, as she was trying to be firm and decisive, yet kept falling back on knee-jerk niceness. Justin Rutledge performed well as singer, guitarist and fire chief. Not that this was the fault of either actor, but a scene where the fire chief discusses weighty matters with Gottlieb was a big yawn.

Mr. Rutledge was also the composer of the show’s music. Some of it was too loud and raucous for me, some of it quite pleasant. But I’m not sure whether the presence of music, regardless of its quality, helped the show or not. (I’m not able to find out whether the original 1950's production had music.) It struck me that, without the music, this might have made a delightful one-hour Fringe show. At that length, the play could have made its satirical points without bogging down. 

On the other hand, maybe it’s a question of timing. The original production of this play in the 1950's, when we hadn’t seen much of this kind of thing, would have been amazing. 

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