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May 10/13

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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: The River Martyrs (Article); Westview Artists (Exhibition); The Place Beyond the Pines (Movie); Giulio Cesare (Opera)

The River Martyrs (Article)  by Luke Mogelson; The New Yorker, April 29, 2013

In Syria, the River Queiq, runs between sections of Aleppo held by government forces and those held by rebels. Frequently, the river serves up bodies of people who have been killed in the conflict. Many of them are the corpses of people -- including women and children -- who simply  had to try to cross the river for business or personal reasons. They have been gunned down by snipers on either side.

Luke Mogelson tells the story of some people who have made it their mission to try to bury the bodies in what was a former playground on the rebel side. I can't think of any piece of writing that conveys so effectively -- and with such matter-of-fact understatement -- the grisly reality of life for people caught in such a horrible situation in our time.

 

Westview Artists (Exhibition) works by Dorothy Blefgen, Pauline Holancin, Ralph Blefgen, Holly Blefgen, Vivian Berard, Janet Dent, Linda Hobson, Bonnie Keberer, Susan Kelly, Corinne McConnell, Evelyn Newsome, Gwen Sheppard, Nancy Sinclair, Ann Wilson; at White Wall North, 1335 Lawrence Avenue East, Unit 6, Toronto; 647-258-0041 www.whitewallnorth.com

If you love watercolour, take yourself to White Wall North for an exhibition in honour of Dorothy Belfgen, one of Toronto’s best-loved watercolourists, who died a couple of years ago.

The show has been put together by Westview Artists, a group that gathers on Tuesdays to paint at the studio of well-known art teacher Pauline Holancin, on Westview Ave in Aurora, north of Toronto. My understanding is that the group started as a class under Pauline’s instruction, but, in the twenty years since, it has become more like a club of close friends who happen to be painters. Although the bulk of the paintings in this show are by Dorothy, the group’s much missed member, there are several works in watercolours and acrylics by the other group members.

It’s Dorothy’s works, though, that make the strongest impression. They’re mostly large still lives (about 14 by 20 inches) of fruit and vegetables, with pottery and silver dishes. The works constitute a wonderful expression of the artist’s joy in the celebration of shape and colour. The hues are rich and luminous and – most important of all for watercolour – superbly transparent. The drawing is realistic and accurate without falling into the dead-end that photo realism sometimes produces. There’s a liveliness to the line that conveys the artist’s enthusiasm.

In a departure from Dorothy’s usual subject matter, one watercolour amounts to a dazzling study of the different colours of the plastic webbing on some lawn chairs. For a completely different mood, another painting features the subdued tones of a collection of suitcases and other pieces of luggage. What I especially like about Dorothy’s painting of a rocky waterfall is that it shows that the artist wasn’t afraid, when the occasion called for it, to jump in with bold splashes of very wet pigment to convey the excitement of a scene.

Among the works by the other artists, the show includes some beautifully mellow autumn scenes by Pauline Holancin, the group’s founder. There are also some striking pieces by Dorothy’s husband, Ralph Blefgen, who specializes in buildings that are white but are rendered with washes of different colours, giving them a surrealistic glow. About the watercolours by Holly Blefgen, the daughter of Ralph and Dorothy, the highest compliment you could pay them would be to say – quite truthfully – that some of the still lives look like they could have been painted by Dorothy herself.

Some of the other works that stood out – for me – among the many fine paintings in the show would be:

  • florals, particularly one very delicate depiction of fuchsias by Ann Wilson
  • Nancy Sinclair’s sailboat at rest at a dock, the composition rendered with angles and planes amounting almost to an abstract work
  • large, exuberant paintings of sunflowers and echinacea flowers by Corinne McConnell
  • Susan Kelly’s colourful houses in snow

[Disclosure: I know some of these artists but not all of them.]

 

The Place Beyond the Pines (Movie) written by Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder; directed by Derek Cianfrance; starring Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, Bradley Cooper, Ben Mendelsohn, Robert Clohessy, Ray Liotta

Watching this movie was like being immersed in a puzzle. Not that the movie itself was especially mysterious. But there was an impression in the back of my mind that the reviews hadn’t been very good, tepid at best. And yet the movie, as it was unfolding, seemed to have lots going for it.

We start with Ryan Gosling as a daredevil motorcyclist doing stunts in a carnival. He bumps into a woman who was his girlfriend when the carnival played this town (Schenectady, N.Y.) a year ago. On a spontaneous visit to her house, he discovers that she has a son, just about a year old. The kid’s grandmother tells our friend Ryan that he’s the dad. He decides that he wants to bond with the kid, so he quits his job with the carnival and starts hanging around the woman and the kid, even though she now has another man. Why such a hard-bitten tough as the Gosling character would feel this sudden onslaught of paternal feeling is hard to fathom. Maybe the only explanation is that he’s Ryan Gosling.

But never mind, it makes for a sad, sentimental story, with an undertone of danger. At one point, when he lashes out violently, the look on his face is fascinating. It seems to say: oops, here we go again, sorry that happened, but that’s who I am. A guy he meets, something of a backwoods weirdo, is played by Ben Mendelsohn, who gives us one of those intriguing characters who keeps you wondering what’s going on with him: one minute squirrely, next minute sensible. Eva Mendes, as the mom of the Gosling character’s kid, shows that she still wants to love the daredevil – who could resist those soulful eyes and the hardened abs? – but she’s older and wiser now and she suspects this guy is nothing but trouble.

As proven in the fact that he starts resorting to criminal means to get enough money to show that he can take care of her and the kid. That leads to a catastropohic confrontation with a cop played by Bradley Cooper. At this point, Mr. Gosling drops out of the movie (literally) and what follows for the next hour or so is a story about the Cooper character as he is embroiled in police politics and corruption. This drama may not be much better than what you’d typically see in any one of the tv cop shows (I’m guessing, as I don’t watch them) but it’s engaging. Ray Liotta as a duplicitous cop, has a blank, tight-lipped expression that can, with frighteningly quick changes, seem friendly or sinister. One especially good scene in this section of the movie has a psychotherapist questioning the Cooper character about his reactions to the encounter with the Gosling character. Mr. Cooper is fascinating to watch as a man who’s trying to be cool and matter-of-fact, while struggling not to reveal what he’s feeling.

The only problem with that scene is that the therapist starts firing leading questions at the patient in order to hit the theme that the scriptwriters want to bring to our attention. That’s something a good therapist would never do. Same for a scriptwriter. But the writing team in this case seemed to feel it was necessary to start laying the groundwork for the final part of the movie, at which point we jump ahead fifteen years. Now the focus is on the two sons of the Gosling and the Cooper characters. As teens, the sons are both stoner losers. I don’t know why the son of the Cooper character is made to seem so inarticulate; he can barely mumble a complete sentence. The other guy is marginally more interesting. But it’s too late in the day to get to know these guys and to care much about them.

Even so, the movie apparently wants us to be caught up in some idea with deep resonance, something almost biblical, something along the lines of the sins of the fathers being visited on the sons. Throughout the movie there has been portentous music to warn us that some such momentous message was in store. At one point, for heaven’s sake, the Cooper character was returning to the cop shop after recovery from an injury and, while all the guys were slapping him on the back and welcoming him, we heard a choral lament so plangent that it could almost have been Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere. (It wasn’t, but you get the idea.) In case the music didn’t make it clear to us that great issues were at stake, we got the fatuous line, early on in the movie: "If you ride like lightning, you’re gonna crash like thunder."

By the end of the movie (two hours plus), there was clearly something wrong. I think the problem is that it takes some disparate components – which may be well worth watching in themselves – and tries to combine them into one massive saga with epic sweep. The melding doesn’t work because there’s too much of a change in mood between sections; the time jumps are too great. It’s the kind of thing that might work in a novel, wherein there’s more time and space to develop themes and to make connections, but not in a movie where things have to happen more quickly. The title sounds very evocative but it barely has any connection with the movie; maybe it’s the kind of thing a novelist could have had fun with.

I wish the people who made this movie had chosen one story and told it well – as the evidence here suggests they could – without the arty pretension.

Capsule Comment (in lieu of a rating): good components overwhelmed by artistic ambition.

 

Giulio Cesare (Opera) by Georg Friedrich Hndel; conducted by Harry Bicket; production by David McVicar; starring Natalie Dessay, David Daniels, Alice Coote, Patricia Bardon, Christophe Dumaux, Guido Loconsolo; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; HD Live transmission, April 27, 2013

This might not be one of the Met’s most popular shows this year. There were more than the usual number of empty seats, both at Lincoln Center and in the movie theatre showing the live transmission. That may have something to do with the nature of Baroque opera. It’s such a refined, elegant art that it may not appeal so very much to the people who like the sweep and splendour of "grand" opera. If the experience of the latter is something like being caught up in a spectacular sound and light show, the enjoyment of Baroque opera is more like savouing precious jewels that are brought out, one by one, and laid before your admiring eyes. It takes a long time to get the full effect of each of those gems; hence a lot of repetition in the arias. That can strike some people as pretty static and it makes for a long afternoon.

If you love the music, though, this opera gives you four and a half hours of perfection. And let’s assume it was played and sung at the highest level here. The main thing to say about this show, then, is the style of the production. Director David McVicar, who first presented it at Glyndebourne, emphasizes the comedy almost to the point of farce. After seeing his interpretation, in fact, you wonder how a straight-faced production of the piece could ever seem anything but deadly dull (apart from the exquisite music). The production is so inventive, so full of theatrical cleverness, that I was reminded of those wonderful Gilbert and Sullivan shows that Brian Macdonald treated us to at the Stratford Festival several decades ago.

One of the first places where the novelty of this production had an impact on me was at a point when two men were involved in one of those martial arts fights with long sticks. Suddenly, the fury of their onslaught went into slow motion: they were swinging their weapons and moving their legs in graceful, gradual arcs that had a very beautiful effect. It was as if Mr. McVicar were teasing us a bit in terms of what we expect in movies and on the stage.

Soon after that moment, the comic ingenuity was coming at us rapid-fire. Some Egyptian maidens enter bearing drinks on trays on their heads. You think: ok, the drinks glasses are glued to the tray. But no, other performers take the glasses off the trays and drink the contents. When Ptolemy and Caesar are going through through the elaborate protocol of their courteous – and hypocritical – overtures to each other, Mr. McVicar has the two men performing some delicate softshoe manoeuvers which fit perfectly with the music and the situation. How often have you seen dignitaries executing negotiations where just such fancy footwork is implied? When Cleopatra, disguised as Lydia, is vamping Caesar, his soldiers in the background are like a bunch of Keystone cops, laughing their heads off about his falling so fast for her charms.

My knowledge of the history of the period is a little weak, apart from what you get in Shakespeare’s play about Cleopatra’s later adventures with Antony. I don’t know Shaw’s play at all. To sum up the main plot points of the opera in so far as I grasped them: Caesar has arrived in Egypt and Cleopatra wants to enlist his aid to depose her brother Ptolemy, who is battling her for the throne of Egypt. Ptolemy, by way of trying to win favour with Caesar, has beheaded Caesar’s old foe, Pompey. Caesar’s not impressed. Now, both Ptolemy and his right-hand man, Achillas, are lusting for Pompey’s widow, Cornelia. She’s horrified by them both and her son, Sextus, vows to avenge his father.

In her opening remarks, Rene Fleming, host for the afternoon, mentioned that the opera is set in Colonial times. Well yes, to the extent that the "Roman" women (read British) are dressed in Victorian tea gowns and they carry parasols. Caesar’s soldiers are garbed in scarlet tunics and pith helmets. But other periods keep creeping in. One of Cleopatra’s many costumes is a flapper-era fringed dress. Near the end, the sailing ships in the background seascape are replaced by modern battleships, and dirigibles appear overhead. When Caesar and Cleopatra are parting after their first meeting, they both make the gesture – thumb and baby finger spread wide – that is widely recognized today as: call me on your cellphone.

The one disadvantage of the empasis on fun was that there was nothing remotely believable about the Cleopatra/Caesar love affair. But it was well worth the sacrifice of gravity there for the sake of the levity elsewhere. Perhaps the thing that gives the best example of it is a touch that comes right at the end. (And I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by revealing it here because you’re probably not about to jump on a plane and head to New York to catch one of the last few performances.) In the final tableau, when the cast is celebrating the nuptials of Caesar and Cleopatra, the two villains of the piece – Ptolemy and Achillas – who have died bloody, gruesome deaths, enter from the wings and join in the champagne toasts. It’s amusing to watch the discomfited reaction of young Sextus, who had, just minutes before, shot Ptolemy through the forehead. In a way, the reappearance is entirely appropriate because, throughout the piece, there have been frequent references to ghosts hovering over the proceedings. As for the good cheer exuded by the two dead guys, it’s as if Mr. McVicar is sending the welcome message: Hey, this is all in fun! No hard feelings!

Once again, the success of a show has a great deal to do with Natalie Dessay as its star. The woman is something of a rarity as an opera singer. In the case of Ms. Dessay, as is not the case with many sopranos, it’s not all about "my beautiful voice." It is as if her voice, her being, are put at the service of the music and the character. Because she gives so much of herself in every way, the word "generous" keeps coming to mind. Her comic skills are probably unsurpassed by those of any soprano. Ms Dessay’s Cleopatra is something like Carol Burnett channelling Audrey Hepburn. In the scene where Cleopatra’s coming on to Caesar, it’s wonderful to behold what this woman can do with sunglasses, a parasol and a cigarette holder. And then, there’s her dancing. Would any other soprano sing a complicated coloratura aria – as Ms Dessay does in her final solo – while executing a very complicated dance with two attendants?

All the other performers make their own special contributions to the flavour of the piece. Christophe Dumaux’s preening, fatuous Ptolemy is like something you’d get from Sacha Baron Cohen (but I don’t think even that gifted performer could, as Monsieur Dumaux does, execute a back flip in the middle of an aria). Alice Coote, as Sesto, has a fresh, clear quality to her voice that suggests something of a teenage male. I especially liked her response when she finally works up her courage to kill Ptolemy. Instead of strutting and crowing from the triumphant young male, we get shocked quivering over what he’s just done. Baritone Guido Loconsolo, as Achillas, was one of the few men who got to throw a lot of testerone around, given that this production featured one woman singing as a man and three countertenors sounding like sopranos. Achillas’ sexual assault on Cornelia was a brutally dark and chilling moment in a production that was so filled with light in every other way. There were just a few times when you felt that the antics were getting too silly. One case could be the solo aria by Cleopatra’s servant, Nirenus, who was portrayed as unapologetically faggy. His number, with the backing of two dancers, was so twee that it looked like something you might have seen in a gay club in some basement bar many years ago.

Given that all the music was delivered superbly, it would be hard to pick any highlights. But two of them might be a couple of duets. The first one featured Sextus and Cornelia (Patricia Bardon) when they’re lamenting the violence done to Pompey; there was something very special about the rare blend of the two mezzo voices, the one slightly higher and brigter, the other warmer and more mellow. The final love duet between Caesar and Cleopatra, when they’ve decided to make a go of it, was dazzling in every way.

One other musical moment that had special meaning for me was Caesar’s aria about a bird singing in a meadow. In effect, the piece was a duet between a countertenor (David Daniels) and a violinist onstage. It made me think that this must be where Ralph Vaughan Williams got the idea for his violin piece "The Lark Ascending." It could also be the model for the soprano’s duet with the flute in the mad scene from Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com