Dilettante's Diary

March 21, 2014

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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: Werther (Opera); Captain Phillips  (DVD); I'm Still Here (DVD); The Adversary (True Crime); The Relive Box, Come Together, A Sheltered Woman and The Largesse of the Sea Maiden (Short Fiction)

Werther (Opera) by Jules Massenet; conducted Alain Atinoglu; starring Jonas Kaufmann, Sophie Koch, Lisette Oropesa, David Bižić, Jonathan Summers, Philip Cokorinos, Tony Stevenson; directed by Richard Eyre; designed by Rob Howell; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus; HD Live Transmission, March 15, 2014

It was curiosity that brought me to this one. I’d never seen it performed and I wasn’t very familiar with the music. For the first ten minutes or so, it looked like one of those operas that consists of a lot of tedious exposition, accompanied by not very tuneful music. What I call "tweedle-dee"music. The orchestra is twiddling this and that while the singers are working their way through a lot of laborious explanation about who everybody is and what they’re all about. In this case, it was the job of a couple of buffoons – elderly men whose fondness for booze was supposed to be comic – to deliver a lot of the info. I always wonder why those late 19th century opera-goers were willing to put up with such clumsy story-telling. Maybe it’s because they didn’t know there could be anything better. Perhaps the construction of the Eiffel Tower was interfering with their Netflix reception.

Once Massenet got a chance to let loose with some intense emotion, things improved enormously. In fact, it was at the moment when Jonas Kaufmann opened his mouth and started to sing that I knew the afternoon was going to be a huge success. I’d heard Mr. Kaufmann on radio before, but never in a full performance. His voice is astounding. Of all the tenors on the scene these days, he’s the one who has the richest, deepest tones in the lower register. But then there are his high notes: bright, secure, ringing. He punched them out unceasingly in this performance. (It must be one of the most demanding tenor roles in the repertoire.) He put so much energy and dynamism into the delivery that it lead me to worry a little bit about whether he will be able to keep it up for a lengthy career or whether he might run into vocal problems before too long.

Which would truly be a pity because he’s got to be one of the biggest opera stars in the firmament. Not many top-ranking tenors can look the romantic hero as convincingly as he does; we’re talking here about a guy with rock star sex appeal. And then there’s his acting; it’s subtle, realistic, honest and believable to an extent that not many opera stars can manage. On top of all that, there’s his personality – a not inconsiderable factor when it comes to fan appeal. Given his smolderingly romantic Werther, it was a pleasant surprise to discover, in the intermission interview, that Mr. Kaufmann is cool, hip and witty. He spoke of Werther as a guy who should just "get over it." In addition to all these talents, Mr. Kaufmann showed, in greetings to friends and family in Munich that his German is damn good. (My joke.) It’s guys like this who make me marvel at what human beings can accomplish. You can have your Olympians.

So it was definitely Mr. Kaufmann’s show. But that’s not to belittle the contributions by everybody else. All the singing was excellent. Sophie Koch, in the role of Charlotte, Werther’s unattainable love object, has a rich, well-rounded mezzo soprano voice. It seems a bit unfair to comment on the fact that a soprano may look too old for a role; after all, men seldom get criticized for that. In this case, though, it must be admitted that it was a bit hard to buy into the pretense that Charlotte was the big sister of the "siblings" about thirty years younger than she. Playing her fianc, then her husband, David Bižić has a beautiful baritone voice. I suppose it’s to be expected that this character should be a bit less attractive than the tenor lover boy but there’s no overlooking Mr. Bižić’s unfortunate tendency to twist his mouth to the left side as he sings. Should a singer be faulted for such a thing? Maybe not. But the fact is that the HD cameras make it impossible not to be put off by it.

The work by Richard Eyre, a well known theatre director, showed up most noticeably – for me – in the interpolated scenes that helped to fill out the story during the orchestral interludes. Rob Howell created some very evocative effects with pieces of sets that glided in and out almost imperceptibly and with projections of things like crows in stark trees and snow falling. The final settting – Werther’s bleak garret – had a gritty reality to it, especially when it came to the splatter of blood on the wall, following the gunshot. How did they do that? I’m guessing somebody was hiding under the bed with a can of spray paint.

 

Captain Phillips (DVD) written by Billy Ray and Stephan Talty; based on the book by Richard Phillips; directed by Paul Greengrass; starring Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali, Michael Chernus, David Warshofsky, Corey Johnson, Chris Mulkey, Yul Vasquez, Max Martini

A stalwart, courageous guy has responsibility for a group of men; they get into some serious trouble with bad guys. It’s up to our hero to save his men. Seems to me I’ve heard that one somewhere before. This version of the old tale doesn’t take us to any Shakespearean depths or heights but it does have its merits.

Firstly, it’s the true story (more or less) of one Captain Richard Phillips, whose freighter was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009. This re-enactment had a lot of appeal for me because I like ships; it’s interesting to see how things are done on them, like getting a glimpse behind scenes at the Metropolitan opera. Also, I’ve often wondered exactly how pirating works? How do the pirates get aboard? What can the crew do, if anything, to stop them? Once the US Navy got involved in this crisis, it was amazing to see the range of technology and the personnel that were brought to bear on the situation. Many plot details were hard for me to catch – not least because a lot was happening in the dark of night – but that didn’t interfere with my appreciating the general thrust of the proceedings. If you wanted to climb up on your politically correct podium, you could complain that this is just another celebration of American might versus some of the world’s most desperate peoples, but the movie does show, at least, that the pirates' lives are controlled by ruthless bosses.

Another good thing about the movie is that the crew members here all look like ordinary guys – mostly overweight and middle-aged – none of them movie stars. As the leader of the pirates, first-time actor Barkhad Abdi doesn’t have to do much acting but he creates a haunting presence of quiet menace. His nomination, then, for an Academy Award isn’t unreasonable. Nor does Tom Hanks as the eponymous captain have to give his acting chops much of a workout, as long as he remains trusty and true for the duration. The last scene, though, when he finally lets it all hang out, is worth waiting for. Now you find you’re in the presence of an actor who can hijack your feelings.

If I’m interpreting the "making-of" features on the dvd correctly, that superb final scene had not been in the script and had evolved more or less on the spur of the moment. These mini-documentaries convey lots of fascinating info about the technical challenges of filming on the ocean and co-ordinating the interaction of these huge ships and little skiffs. The commentary throughout the film, by director Paul Greengrass, offers further insight into the challenges he faced and the artistic goals he was aiming at. However, his commentary tends too much towards a how-to-make-a-great-film seminar, as if we were all young hopefuls in film school. Although he acknowledges the importance of team work and luck, a self-serving tone creeps into his spiel, which is why I skipped through a lot of it.

 

I’m Still Here (DVD) written by Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix; directed by Casey Affleck; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Antony Langdon, Casey Affleck,

A highly respected and charismatic actor announces that he’s quitting the business. He’s going to become a hip-hop rapper. He makes bewildering public appearances where he mutters and mumbles. On a late night talk show, he’s dishevelled, chews gum and seems barely coherent. The man appears to be flaming out spectacularly. A few months later, we find out it was all a hoax. (Some people suspected as much during the stunt.) His pal was making a "what if" documentary about it all. Am I offended? Not at all. I’ve long wanted to see that documentary, especially given the fact that I have admired so much the actor’s work in many movies.

Joaquin Phoenix’s creation of the "Joaquin Phoenix" who’s having an identity crisis shows him ranting and raving at his buddies, his agent and managers, smoking, doing drugs and romping with hookers. The main thrust of it all is that he’s trying – against all hope and common sense – to get a bigshot producer to take on his first his hip-hop album. Along the way, some good points are made about celebrity, about living in the limelight, about a guy’s right to do what he wants and about his fans’ reactions. You could call it a satire about the business. (Director Casey Affleck rejects the "hoax" label.) The trouble is, the script -- particularly when it comes to dialogue -- isn’t very imaginative. Mr. Phoenix’s foul-mouthed (very) fulminations get tiresome. It is good, though, to see a reprise of the infamous appearance with David Letterman; that’s surely got to be one of the most memorable tv incidents in the past decade. And the moment in the dressing room afterwards, when Mr. Phoenix appears to be in shock, is actually quite touching. It may be some of the best acting he’s ever done.

 

The Adversary (True Crime) by Emmanuel Carrre, 2000 (English translation by Linda Coverdale)

Stories about people who lead double lives intrigue me. Here, it’s Jean-Claude Romand who was pretending, for several years, to be a doctor working for the World Health Organization in Geneva. When he was supposedly going to work every day, he was driving around, sitting in parks and cafs. He supported his family, at home just across the border in France, on large sums of money that relatives and friends had asked him to invest for them. It was when that money was running out and people were asking awkward questions about their investments that he turned to violence. In 1993, he killed his wife, his two children, his parents and their dog. He made a half-hearted attempt to kill himself but survived. At first he pleaded complete ignorance of the murders but eventually confessed and was sentenced to life imprisonment, with no possibility of parole for 22 years. During his time in prison he has become very religious and – apparently – contrite.

A lengthy correpondance took place between M. Romand and author Emmanuel Carrre before the two men met. Monsieur Carrre admits that he had some difficulty deciding how to write about this sorry business. Attempts to recount it in various ways were abandoned. I’m not sure that the book that M. Carrre eventually produced works perfectly – at least, not for North American readers. The book doesn’t fit into the hard-hitting, factual mode that we would expect of the true crime genre. It’s more like a French intellectual’s mulling over the case and its implications. M. Carrre covers the important facts of the story but not in the well-organized, clear way that we would expect; often, statements pertaining to Mr. Romand’s pretend life are mixed in with details about his true life. It can be hard to tell which is which. Reportage is somewhat deficient. In the accounts of M. Romand’s trial, for example. M. Carrre never actually states the purpose of the trial. Given that M. Romand had confessed, one assumes that the trial was about his sentencing. (Perhaps some of the lack of clarity here has to do with the fact that the French judicial process is quite different from the one we North Americans know best.)

Psychiatrists called in by the courts spun grandiloquent and elaborate theories about what was wrong with M. Romand. M. Carrre seems to end up caught between two diametrically opposed views of M. Romand among the French. There are those who consider him diabolically evil and those who look on him as the sinner turned saint. The word ‘psychopath’ is never used by M. Carrre but it seems to me that it might help to describe M. Romand. It appears that he was incapable of feeling empathy for people; his only concern was for his own feelings, his own delusion about himself as the big man. But maybe the attempt to pigeon-hole M. Romand is beside the point. He's a guy who did some very bad things. Is his repentance genuine? Who knows? People are complicated. You can’t explain them with simple theories.

 

New Yorker Notables

If we commented on every worthwhile piece in The New Yorker, there wouldn’t be much point in our noting them. Sometimes, however, certain stand-out items demand to be mentioned. As, for example, the following pieces of short fiction.

The Relive Box by T. Coraghessan Boyle (March 17, 2014)

Normally, fiction with a sci-fi angle doesn’t have a strong appeal for me, but this is an exception. Because of the odd premise, though, it can take you a while to get into the story. You gradually figure out that a forlorn single dad, who’s falling out of touch with his fifteen-year-old daughter, secretes himself in a room at home where he succumbs to the lure of a "relive" machine. It does exactly what its name would seem to promise: it enables you to relive past experiences as if you were watching them on video. The story turns into a wrenching study of the all-too-human propensities for regret and for wallowing in a sense of loss, with a particularly contemporary spin as regards procrastination and wasting time, thanks to our addiction to technology.

 

Come Together by Karl Ove Knausgaard (February 14 & 24, 2014)

Although it’s billed as fiction, it seems much like memoir, not least because the first-person narrator has the same first name as the author. It’s the frank account of a twelve-year-old Norweigan boy’s first love. His handling of the affair is so geeky as to make you cringe at times. But the disastrous and ludicrous aspects of the story are redeemed by kindness where unexpected – from an older brother, for instance. And there’s a lot of charm to being immersed in Norweigan village life in an era – the 1980s, I think – when a large part of the business of conducting a first romance for two kids amounted to riding their bikes together.

Later: I now realize that Mr. Knausgaard is the author of the multi-volume and much-celebrated autobiographical novel known in English translation as My Struggle. Presumably, this short piece is an excerpt from the larger work.

 

A Sheltered Woman by Yiyun Li (March 10, 2014)

The remarkable thing about this story is that it introduces you to a kind of person you’ve never met in fiction (at least, I haven’t). If you’ve encountered her in real life, you probably had no idea what she was really like. Author Yiyun Li gives us the scarily unfamiliar life of a Chinese woman who has moved to San Francisco where she now works as a "first month nanny": she moves into a home to help look after a baby and its mother for the first month after a baby is born. She makes it a firm policy that she will stay one month only. This woman is something of an expert at not getting attached to anything. You begin to understand why when you learn about the formidable women who raised her. The nanny has become a supremely practical – not to say scheming – woman who spurns emotion, who doesn’t want to hear people’s confidences or their life stories. That makes for a striking contrast between her and the somewhat spoiled, self-involved young mother she’s working for now.

 

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden by Dennis Johnson (March 3, 2014)

Our narrator, a sixty-ish ad man, has come to Manhattan to accept an award for a commercial he helped produce years ago. He has a rather detached, bemused view of what’s happening. In ten sections, the rather longish piece takes us through his odd encounters with family, friends and strangers. One of the most memorable episodes is the one where the narrator gets a call from his ex-wife, telling him that she’s dying and she wants to make peace with him. He’s very empathetic but, part way through the conversation, he realizes that he’s not sure which of his ex-wives he’s talking to. Other writers might use this sort of material for hilarious comedy, or theatre of the absurd or existential dread. What’s so appealing about Dennis Johnson’s writing is that his voice is quiet and sincere, very matter-of-fact, nothing is exaggerated or played for laughs. It’s like a friend confiding in you, almost in a whisper, and asking:

I wonder if you’re like me, if you collect and squirrel away in your soul certain odd moments when the Mystery winks at you, when you walk in your bathrobe and tasselled loafers, for instance, well out of your neighborhood and among a lot of closed shops, and you approach your very faint reflection in a window with words above it.

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